Home wireless war rages over standards

Some technology companies are hedging their wireless bets, hoping to not end up the Betamax in a VHS world.

5 min read
Some technology companies are hedging their wireless bets, hoping to not end up the Betamax in a VHS world.

A brewing battle between two competing wireless technologies in the home could soon erupt into a war some analysts and executives believe will be akin to the VCR technology standards fight that pitted VHS against Betamax in the nascent days of videotape machines for the home.

Most technology companies in the nascent home-networking market have chosen sides and support one wireless technology. But a growing number of companies, such as IBM, Proxim and Cayman Systems, are now straddling the fence and backing both--a sign that the battle is far from over.

"I don't think either technology will crush each other," Kurt Scherf, an analyst at Parks Associates, said in reference to Wi-Fi and HomeRF. "It's split evenly. There's no clear winner."

At issue is the wireless technology consumers will use as part of a home network, by which computers, new Internet appliances such as Web pads and Internet radios, and other electronic equipment can wirelessly connect and share a Net connection and swap information.

Nearly 70 companies, including Apple Computer, 3Com, Cisco Systems, Dell Computer and Sony, back a standard called Wi-Fi, or 802.11B--a wireless technology that analysts say has the edge because it already has made inroads into businesses. Some 80 companies, including Intel, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard, support an alternative wireless networking technology called HomeRF.

For consumers, the wireless standards war could cause confusion and frustration if the technology they buy can't work together. Both sides have wireless networking products out on the market.

In the past half year, two strong HomeRF supporters have hedged their bets to support Wi-Fi in the home. Wireless pioneer Proxim acquired Wi-Fi technology in June when it purchased networking company Farallon, a maker of technology that allows Apple Macintoshes and PCs to be linked together.

HomeRF supporter Cayman Systems, which makes digital subscriber line (DSL) modems, also signed on to support Wi-Fi in June. "We're indifferent. It makes sense to support both. We'll let the market decide the winner," said Cayman's chief technology officer John Stephens.

Proxim executives are downplaying its Wi-Fi product, saying they're mainly pushing HomeRF products, but want to give consumers options. But HomeRF supporters may have reason to worry.

Competition heats up
While analysts say it's unclear which standard will win out, Wi-Fi has one distinct advantage: People are already using the technology in the office. When they take their laptops home, they want the wireless PC card in their computers to work at home as well. Hotels and airports are also installing Wi-Fi.

IBM, which allows shoppers to choose

Wireless wars in the home  
HomeRF supporters include: 
  • Compaq Computer
  • Intel
  • Motorola
  • Proxim
  • Siemens

HomeRF products are currently cheaper and can better handle video, audio and voice calls. They're slower than Wi-Fi products but will reach Wi-Fi speeds by the middle of next year.

Wi-Fi supporters include: 
  • 3Com
  • Cisco Systems
  • Dell Computer
  • Lucent Technologies
  • Sony

Wi-Fi products are more expensive, but prices are coming down. A standards group is working on improvements, including the ability to better handle voice, video and audio.

between Wi-Fi and HomeRF in their computers, says Wi-Fi is the bigger hit among consumers.

"Home RF has a significant challenge in the marketplace," said Leo Suarez, director of worldwide product marketing for IBM Mobile Systems. "What is going to drive wireless implementation into the home is the corporate person working at home, and they are going to say, 'Whatever I have in the office, I want in the home.' All the corporations are going with (Wi-Fi). You can't stop a wave."

Analysts and executives say they expect one wireless standard will win out in the home. They say three factors will spur home networking: high-speed Net access through cable and DSL and the need to share that single Net connection with multiple electronic devices; new Net appliances, such as Web pads and Internet radios; and new wireless networking kits.

Cahners In-Stat Group analyst Michael Wolf also believes Wi-Fi, or 802.11B, has the edge in the home because of its popularity with businesses.

"802.11B has more (momentum) right now among the large equipment vendors today," Wolf said. "And ultimately, if you look at the advantages HomeRF is claiming--cheaper cost and voice support--802.11B will soon be on par. Some of these signs are worrisome for HomeRF."

Some companies, such as Intel, Compaq Computer and Siemens, are building HomeRF products for the home and Wi-Fi products for businesses. It will be easy for these companies to switch gears and support Wi-Fi in the home if it becomes dominant, Wolf said.

"One of them may bite the bullet and say, 'Let's go with one technology,'" he said.

In the meantime, Wi-Fi and HomeRF supporters are in the midst of big marketing pushes. During this month's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, both sides rented out large booths to explain to consumers why their standard is better.

Wi-Fi offers faster data transfer rates at 11 mbps (megabits per second) but costs more. HomeRF is slower at 1.6 mbps but is less expensive.

A recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission will allow HomeRF to boost its speed to 10 mbps by next summer. The faster data rate is important because it allows people to connect more PCs and devices, transfer larger files and graphics, as well as distribute video or audio throughout the home.

Wireless winner?
HomeRF says its technology is better at supporting phone calls, as well as audio and video. Wi-Fi supporters, however, say they can soon support up to 22 mbps and will eventually support voice calls as well as audio and video. Wi-Fi supporters also claim their prices are starting to fall to HomeRF levels.

Both camps say their technology will be compatible with Bluetooth, an emerging technology that wirelessly connects gadgets, such as cell phones, personal digital assistants, computers and monitors.

Company executives say the standards that Internet appliance makers and service providers, such as AT&T and Pacific Bell, support will be a big factor in determining which wireless technology wins out.

To get more revenue, service providers are offering or planning to offer to network consumers' homes at the same time that they install high-speed Net access. Voice support in wireless standards is important because it will allow service providers to offer phone services via cable or DSL. Cayman Systems' Stephens said many of its service provider customers are testing both technologies.

While many predict Wi-Fi will eventually win, Parks Associates' Scherf believes it's too soon to tell. Regardless, consumers shouldn't fret about which wireless technology they buy today because they can always upgrade, Wolf said.

"If you're buying a few $100 wireless PC cards, at some point, it will be outdated technology," he said, "and you'll want to upgrade to a different technology anyway. It's no different than buying computers."