How Wi-Fi Almost Didn’t Happen

We all love Wi-Fi, besides after we can’t join. We take as a right with the ability to have wi-fi entry at residence and the workplace, on airplanes, in cafés across the globe, and if we would be so fortunate, floating on the International Space Station.

But what if Wi-Fi hadn’t occurred? It virtually didn’t, no less than not in the best way we acknowledge it as we speak.



Jeff Abramowitz was an creator of the unique IEEE 802.11 commonplace, and a founding father of the Wi-Fi Alliance and has held govt roles within the Wi-Fi trade for 25 years. His oral historical past of Wi-Fi is chronicled within the Computer History Museum. He is a Principal at A2Z Partners and is writing a guide on the early years of Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi formally launched 20 years in the past, on September 15, 1999. You could also be imagining a flashy launch occasion that includes Christina Aguilera (“The wireless genie is out of the bottle!”), or a breathless headline that booted the dreaded Y2K bug from the entrance pages. Instead, think about eight technophiles in an Atlanta Convention Center briefing room ready to “Superman” their jackets to reveal polo shirts bearing the made-up phrase Wi-Fi earlier than a crowd of 60.

There was no lack of enthusiasm in that room; 17 tech corporations massive and small had dedicated to again Wi-Fi, together with Apple, Dell, and Nokia. But even probably the most fervent evangelists (myself included) by no means imagined the form of international financial, social, and cultural impression Wi-Fi would have.

By early summer season 1999, the wi-fi world resembled the Wild West. Businesses had largely adopted Ethernet wired networking, which linked desktop computer systems in “local area networks” at 10 megabits per second. Consumers, in the meantime, have been sending emails from residence to the squealing and squawking sounds of the most recent 56 Kbps dial-up modems. Products for wi-fi native space networking, or WLAN, did exist, primarily for companies, however a mess of corporations supplied proprietary options that risked quickly turning into out of date. The options thought of an official commonplace have been primarily based on an preliminary specification often called IEEE 802.11 (the wi-fi networking group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). These wi-fi merchandise have been 5 occasions slower than their wired counterparts and likewise have been costly. In addition, there have been other ways to interpret the specification. One vendor might construct “standards-compliant” merchandise that weren’t totally suitable with “standards-compliant” merchandise from one other. These weaknesses within the worldwide specification led corporations to help rival expertise consortia, every aiming to change into a de facto commonplace.

HomeRF was the most important and most seen WLAN consortium on the time. The specification was developed by the group of Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft; it focused the buyer market, and was backed by greater than 80 different corporations. Unlike 802.11 merchandise, HomeRF merchandise communicated with one another, and have been significantly cheaper. HomeRF (brief for residence radio frequency) additionally had a catchier title than IEEE 802.11, and it had lofty plans for greater speeds and enlargement into the enterprise market.

Meanwhile, the second technology of the IEEE commonplace, 802.11b, was anticipated to get last approval on the finish of September. The firm 3Com, then a number one networking agency (each 3Com and Compaq have been acquired by HP), had developed merchandise primarily based on this new and sooner commonplace that have been slated to ship towards the tip of 1999. With the clock ticking, 3Com introduced 5 robust IEEE advocates collectively to discovered an unbiased Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, or WECA, which aimed to make sure that merchandise primarily based on the pending commonplace would work collectively. The title “FlankSpeed” was proposed, however they in the end trademarked the title “Wi-Fi”—a riff on “hi-fi,” or high-fidelity from the period of residence stereos—and established the foundations by which gadgets might change into “Wi-Fi Certified.”

We all know Wi-Fi gained, however there are numerous methods by which Wi-Fi may not have change into ubiquitous, and as an alternative HomeRF remained a competing commonplace. For one, IEEE 802.11b might have been delayed, which almost occurred save for a superb compromise between two WLAN trade pioneers and foes, Lucent Technologies and Harris Semiconductor. Instead, let’s hypothesize a second state of affairs the place WECA selected to deal with simply enterprise connectivity (which was additionally mentioned), not “go-anywhere” connectivity, and “FlankSpeed” was chosen over “Wi-Fi.”

In a FlankSpeed world, staff would have used FlankSpeed on the workplace and HomeRF at residence. It can be harder to carry work residence with you. Which expertise would you search for in a espresso store or on the airport? Maybe neither. Wait, no public entry? NoHO (not residence/not workplace) zones may change into no man’s lands for connectivity. Far worse, no FlankSpeed baked into smartphones. Mobility as we all know it vanishes into skinny air!

Darwinian expertise theorists may argue that one group would have finally gained out—a FlankSpeed flotilla may need fashioned. But having one commonplace created a singular deal with price reductions and innovation. Neither an embattled FlankSpeed nor HomeRF might ever have been as low-cost or as pervasive as Wi-Fi. The lack of a common commonplace would have inhibited rollout at locations like retail shops and public areas the place we’ve come to anticipate, and even demand entry. Perhaps there can be no streaming video whereas ready in line for lunch or no web connectivity on trains and planes.

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