Monday, January 29, 2007

WiFi trapped by its own success?

WiFi (aka 802.11a, b, g) has been a tremendous success. In fact, given its modest goals as a way to connect handheld computers in a warehouse, it widespread adoption in every laptop and an increasing number of PDAs an cell phones is remarkable.

If anything, it’s been too successful. Too successful, you say? Isn't that like being too rich or too thin?

The problem is that a large installed base creates an upward compatibility constraint that can be irresistible. Inertia for an existing standard is the cumulative effect of the number of customers times the individual switching costs (plus producer-related switching costs — in this case the base station and chip makers). As Brian Dipert of EDN reports, the committee took its time in standardizing, and meanwhile various greedy and impatient vendors shipped so many “draft 802.11n” products, that no one would vote for a final standard that was incompatible with all the nonstandard product in the field.

Meanwhile, George Ou has a provocative post where he argues that the 802.11n standardization committee wimped out, deciding to create something that's not really all that much better than 802.11g. As Ou tells it, the problem was that rather than spend a few extra bucks (initially) on a chip that also supported 5 GHz, they stuck with the crowed 2.4 GHz band. The existing 2.4 GHz spectrum only supports 3 (or 4) simultaneous channels and are already crowded, so (my reading of it is) unless you’re on a deserted mountaintop you’ll never see the claimed 100 Mbps throughput.

If I were the Enhanced Wireless Consortium, when the final standard gets blessed I’d get the press some sample units to demonstrate actual performance.

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