Wireless firms jumping gun on new spec?

With an OK for the speedy 802.11g wireless spec still months off, the impatience of early adopting gear makers could create interoperability headaches and rile consumers.

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
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The makers of wireless-networking gear aren't known for their patience.

When 802.11b first burst on the scene, offering a quick and workable wireless home-networking platform, some manufacturers jumped into the market with components and products long before industry standards groups tested and approved the specification. The result was headaches for some as interoperability issues emerged.

Now a repeat of that scenario is shaping up for wireless networking's latest specification, 802.11g. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is finalizing the 802.11g spec and is expected to have a standard set before the middle of the year. Interoperability tests by the Wi-Fi Alliance are expected to conclude several months later.

Although that means official certification is still some way off, a handful of companies have already released products, and others are racing ahead with their own plans to take early advantage of 802.11g's bandwidth. The potential rewards include getting an early jump on a market that is expected to take off in both the home and the office. Potential downsides, however, could include a cascade of incompatible products, which could leave consumers with a bad taste in their mouths for the emerging specification.

"Issues are expected until a standard is approved by the various governing bodies," said Allen Nogee, an analyst with research firm In-Stat/MDR.

The wireless home-networking market is one of the few areas in the technology industry that is getting growing support from companies and consumers. More and more big names, such as Microsoft and Sony, are joining the Wi-Fi market and are adding wireless networking products to their portfolios.

Shipments of wireless-networking products, made up of primarily 802.11b-based products, were up threefold in 2002 compared with 2001, according to retail-market tracker NPDTechworld. But at the same time, average selling prices for those 802.11b products fell from $136 in December of 2001 to $87 in December 2002. Products using 802.11a based were almost inconsequential, not even adding up to 1 percent of 802.11b sales for the year.

Products using the 802.11g spec are expected to come in and take over for 802.11b products, creating a sort of premium market for those looking for more bandwidth in their networks, while also addressing the large established 802.11b audience. The 802.11b standard allows data to be transferred at rates of up to 11mbps and uses the 2.4GHz radio band. The 802.11a standard transmits data at up to 54mbps in the higher 5GHz frequency but is not compatible with 802.11b. The 802.11g specification supports 54mbps and is compatible with 802.11b.

Manufacturers have assumed that there is a pent-up demand in the market for 802.11g-based products because of the response to 802.11b and have prepared to meet that demand with devices using a draft of the specification currently under review by the IEEE.

Large businesses are likely to give 802.11g the cold shoulder until it is a stable standard, according to Brice Clark, worldwide director of Strategy and Business Planning for Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve Networking Business.

"Our customers still have to pay for installing new 802.11g software, and deployment issues are real," said Clark. "They cost money, sometimes more than the cost of hardware." HP's customers tend to set up hundreds of wireless access points for thousands of clients.

Clark added that for HP it's a careful balance of being aggressive enough to be competitive but cautious enough to protect its customers.

"We tend to be conservative and not introduce products prestandard. We're going to hold off," said Clark.

Still the PC maker is planning ahead with partnerships that will eventually land 802.11g technology in its products.

On Wednesday, HP joined IBM, NEC and Toshiba in announcing that it would be using Atheros Wi-Fi chips in notebooks. During the announcement, Atheros CEO Rich Redelfs said that the company had discovered through internal tests that there were interoperability issues between some products using 802.11g chips that are already on the market. Products using Atheros 802.11g chips will be available at the end of the quarter.

Redelfs volunteered the information because Atheros was concerned that those 802.11g products would "poison the well" for future 802.11g products, said Sheung Li, a product line manager at Atheros.

No problem
Rival networking-chip makers Broadcom and Intersil said they had not heard of any interoperability issues with their 802.11g-based products.

"Those that have products (using the 802.11g specification) aren't complaining and those that don't are," said Jim Zyren, director of strategic marketing at Intersil. Product manufacturers NetGear and D-Link currently have products in the market using Intersil's 802.11g chips. Broadcom's 802.11g chips are being used in devices from Linksys, Buffalo and Japanese networking company Melco.

Atheros had said that the products it tested were based on draft versions of the 802.11g specification that were not up to date. The result, it said, was a shorter range for 802.11g networks. Also, when an 802.11b client entered an 802.11g network, it caused the 802.11g network to slow to 802.11b speeds. Atheros added that its chips, which are sampling with customers now, use the latest version of the 802.11g specification and do not have the same problems.

Product makers have taken measures to ensure that in the event the 802.11g specification changes significantly, customers will be able to upgrade their devices via a software update. Buffalo Technology has even said that it will replace products at no extra charge.

"The assumption is that products can be upgraded in a flash, but the truth is few consumers really upgrade products," said Craig Barratt, vice president of technology at Atheros.

Barratt added that the most serious issue is that products don't work as well as they should, and although he expects interoperability problems to be resolved, the concern is that the problems may leave a bad impression with customers.

Those that might have some insight into the extent of the changes between the latest version of the 802.11g specification and the previous version, such as the chairs of the IEEE 802.11 working group and the Wi-Fi Alliance, are declining to comment.

The University of New Hampshire Interoperability Lab isn't making results of its first interoperability trials public.

Broadcom executives added that they had found an issue of their own and had brought it to the attention of the IEEE 802.11 working group earlier this month. According to Jeff Abramowitz senior director of wireless LAN marketing at Broadcom, 802.11g networks with chips using an older version of the 802.11g specification do not recognize certain older 802.11b PC Cards. A fix is added to the latest version of the 802.11g spec, according to Abramowitz.

These issues will likely be worked out as the specification is certified and becomes a standard, but in the short term, the concern is that it will leave a black mark on 802.11g that could slow its adoption.

"In the long run, I don't think (any interoperability controversy) will have an effect on the market," said Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance. "Most mainstream consumers will likely wait until the specification is finalized, and early adopters are more likely to put up with problems."

NPDTechworld analyst Stephen Baker said he expected 802.11g to have a bigger impact in the corporate world than with consumers.

"How many consumers really need 54mbps of wireless bandwidth? Someone's broadband connection is more likely to be a bottleneck than their access point," said Baker, noting that few consumer-electronics or computing devices are available in the market that currently connect to Wi-Fi networks.