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The a, b and g's of local area wireless connection alternatives

Utility is critical when it comes to wireless technology, especially as it is impacted by all sorts of pseudo-laws that push the capabilities envelope even further up the scale.





Most everyone in this industry is familiar with "Moore's Law", an astute observation made way back in 1965 by Intel Corp. Chairman Emeritus Dr. Gordon Moore that predicted the continued exponential growth in the number of transistors per integrated circuit and growth in computing power.

Tech trivialists may be less familiar with an operational rule formulated by former Lotus Development Corp. chief scientist and Internet pioneer David Reed, called "Reed's Law", which postulated that computer networks become more useful and functional as more people log in and join the networking fray. Personally, we think Reed's Law is a bit more pertinent to today's computing environment since everything is now tied into the Internet and Web services, and collaborative computing over diverse and dispersed networks is all the rage in both consumer and enterprise computing. Simply put, the more people logged onto the Net, and able to share and use information, the functionally merrier!

One other person whose name may be even less recognizable -- primarily because he is totally off the computing radar -- is Arnold Nawrocki, the creator of individually-wrapped sliced cheese who died June 30 after a lifetime of service in the dairy industry. Nawrocki revolutionized the cheese industry in 1950 when he developed a way of economically encasing thin pieces of cheese between wax-coated sheets of cellophane. While this may seem like a simple feat, this new method of packaging helped bring cheese to the masses by making it more accessible, flexible and useful.

In doing so, Mr. Nawrocki only assured himself a permanent place in the Grilled Cheese Hall of Fame, but also set an example we all could follow in the mobile and wireless industries. That is, no matter how well known or pervasive the product and technology (in his case, cheese), it is always made better when techniques are applied that make it more useful and easier to handle by the unwashed masses.

Utility and ease of use are critical when it comes to wireless technology, especially as it is impacted by all sorts of pseudo-laws and rules that push the capabilities envelope even further up the scale. For example, we recently took part in a panel discussion as part of the 802.11 Planet conference and expo in Boston, which focused on the future of the 802.11a technology -- which as everyone knows, is the higher-speed cousin of the more familiar 802.11b wireless standard. The panel was populated by experts from the industry -- primarily analysts, like us -- who offered their views on the survivability of the 802.11a standard in light of more recent developments as 802.11g.

Say 'cheese' for 802.11 acceptance
Most of the analysts agreed that 802.11a will survive quite nicely with b, g, i and all the succeeding cousins since it offers a few benefits and features over existing and planned technologies. Most notably, it is much faster than 802.11b (offering speeds up to 54M bits/second on a very good day), and it operates on a higher spectrum than the 2.4GHz runway used by 802.11b, 802.11g and an assortment of wireless garage door openers, cordless phones and light bulbs -- so there is less possibility of conflict and signal collisions. The 802.11a standard has also been around for a few years, and is available in a number of wireless products and mobile systems. It has also established itself as a high-speed standard in many enterprise settings, chugging along quite nicely with existing 802.11b wireless networks.

The 'shrink-wrapped rule' of utility
We won't argue that 802.11a will have a valued place in the enterprise (although we may take issue that it will also seize a sizeable chunk of the consumer market, as some of our esteemed colleagues forecast with much gusto during our panel discussion). However, using the "shrink-wrapped cheese" rule of utility and usefulness -- which basically states that the utility of a product is directly related to its ease of use and mass market appeal -- we will contend that 802.11g will enjoy a much wider acceptance than 802.11a in both the consumer and business markets. Here are some very gouda (sorry, we couldn't resist!) and individually sliced reasons why we think this is so:

Since both 802.11b and 802.11g operate in the 2.4GHz radio frequency band, and in fact 802.11g extends the OSI Model Physical Layer of 802.11b from 11Mbps to 54M bit/sec using different types of modulation, there are no issues of compatibility. Simply put, if you are currently using an 802.11b system, you can easily add 802.11g. This is not the case with 802.11a, which is not compatible with either b or g, and operates in an entirely different frequency.

802.11g products are relatively inexpensive, as compared to 802.11a, and wireless vendors are already rushing to develop and pump products into the market (event thought the standard has just recently been ratified by the IEEE). At least one respected research company estimates that 802.11g products accounted for 20 percent of all the wireless LAN shipments this year so far, and major player Intel Corp. has announced plans to offer a Centrino chip that bundle both the 802.11a and 802.11g technologies. Fujitsu and Gateway have also announced plans for mobile systems with embedded 802.11g wireless. Last year, consumers spent $3.7 billion on gear such as wireless routers and access points, and that figure that is expected to double over the next three years. The majority of those purchases was for 802.11b products, and will obviously include 802.11g because of its compatibility with that standard.

While there is some concern for "wireless collisions" and resulting performance issues because f the increasingly crowded 2.4GHz spectrum, these issues are less important than cost, compatibility, expandability and general usefulness of the technology.

Taking a sizeable bite
Now, the big question: Will 802.11g and other succeeding compatible technologies replace 802.11a? No. The 802.11a technology is much more robust and theoretically offers a higher performance since it functions in a different frequency where there is much less wireless traffic and static. Proponents of the technology insist that the technology has been around for a while, and is being adopted at an increasing rate within the business community. (We agree with them.) Some proponents also insist that 802.11a will find a comfortable niche on the consumer side, especially as a wireless alternative for mobile workers who work from home offices.

We do not, however, quite agree with this point since compatibility is a key issue within the consumer space, especially when it comes to installing multiple systems or throwing out old systems to install newer ones. This is why we think 802.11g will take a significant bite of the high-speed wireless market, and 802.11a will be a distant second alternative.

Of course, our predictions are based a large part on our "cheese rule", and the belief that if you build it and it is useful and easy, then they will come. While we do no claim to be a "cheese whiz" (sorry...again, we couldn't resist!), it only makes sense not to reinvent the wheel, but to develop a better vehicle to take advantage of existing roads and routes.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to www.shorelineresearch.com.


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