Standards: Truce pays off for rivals
By Wylie Wong and Richard Shim
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
February 7, 2003, 4:00 AM PT
As fast wireless technologies hit store shelves, networking companies that survived an earlier standards war in the booming market are determined to prevent another one from erupting.
When the first mass-market products arrived in 1999, the wireless industry polarized buyers with two incompatible choices: Wi-Fi, also known as 802.11b, was
backed by the likes of Apple Computer, Cisco Systems and Lucent Technologies, while HomeRF won the support of Proxim, Motorola and Siemens.
For two years, both sides engaged in an expensive marketing battle that included dueling booths at the annual Comdex trade show. Both
hawked their respective technologies as the best option for wirelessly linking desktop and notebook PCs for shared Internet access. With the support of PC makers, 802.11b trounced HomeRF, and the working group that promoted the HomeRF standard disbanded at the beginning of this year.
The issue didn't end there. Two more 802.11 wireless standards will emerge this year, frustrating network equipment makers and chip manufacturers desperate to avoid another costly fight in today's tough economy.
Fortunately, manufacturers are choosing to support all the major standards to prevent the kind of market confusion that has thwarted other technologies in years past. Equipment companies such as Cisco and Linksys, as well as chipmakers like Intel, Atheros and Intersil, plan to work with all three 802.11 standards.
"Back in the heyday when money was flying around like candy, it was much easier for a company to be more revolutionary and not play within the boundaries of standards," said Kurt Scherf, an analyst with Parks Associates. "At this point, it is clear that very few IT purchasers are willing to take the risk of trying untested products that are not compatible."
Both consumers and companies have suffered throughout protracted standards wars in networking technology. A few years ago, for example, the fight over 56kbps modems led to a confusing market in which consumers had to choose between two overlapping technologies.
"We all want wireless networks to be adopted in greater numbers, and if customers find it a pain to use, they won't buy or use it," said Lynn Lucas, Proxim's marketing director.
A brief look at the industry's progress--and therefore market potential--shows why wireless companies are so passionate about the standards issue.
The newer technologies offer speeds five times faster than those possible under the original 802.11b wireless standard. While 802.11b limits data-transfer rates to 11mbps, one emerging standard--802.11a--allows speeds up to 54mbps. The faster rates will enable the network to support more connections, improve the quality of streaming media and provide the bandwidth needed to swap large files.
An industry group called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is working to ratify a third standard, 802.11g, which matches the speed of 802.11a. The difference between the two involves compatibility with the original 802.11b standard: 802.11g is automatically compatible, but 802.11a is not.
The 802.11b and 802.11g standards are compatible because they reside in the crowded 2.4GHz frequency, the same airwaves used by microwave
ovens and some cordless phones. However, a person may have trouble surfing the Web over a wireless network while using a microwave oven or cordless phone nearby.
The 802.11a standard operates in the less-crowded 5GHz frequency, where interference is less of a problem. It offers better security but less range than its competitors.
Products currently using 802.11g are actually using a draft version of what will eventually become the 802.11g standard, which the IEEE expects to certify for interoperability later this year. Some analysts and industry experts are concerned that products using this draft version could have interoperability problems.
Nevertheless, companies hoping to get a head start in the market already are building "dual-band" networking equipment and PC cards that support 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g.
"It's like the cell phone industry today. You can go between here and Europe, and you don't think about standards in different countries," Lucas said. "Having combo cards gives consumers the same freedom. You can go from home to the office and not worry about the radio standard."
Gemma Paulo, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR, said multiple standards can also be supported by purchasing devices that connect wireless technology to a regular Net connection.
A few chipmakers and network equipment companies have added proprietary technology to the 802.11a and 802.11b standards to boost speeds. For instance, D-Link, SMC and U.S. Robotics are selling
wireless equipment made by Texas Instruments that doubles the 802.11b speed to 22mbps. Similarly, Atheros has made a chip that doubles the speed of 802.11a to 108mbps.
"There are areas in which vendors add proprietary products," said Dennis Eaton, an Intersil marketing manager and chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance. "We don't discourage vendors from distinguishing themselves."
The Wi-Fi Alliance deserves much of the credit for ensuring compatibility among wireless products. The organization, whose goal is to promote the 802.11 standards, provided certification tests to show that the 802.11b products from all the equipment makers worked with other technologies. The group last month also certified 802.11a products and intends to approve 802.11g technology this year once the standard has been finalized by the IEEE, Eaton said.
Nevertheless, the industry needs to be careful not to confuse prospective customers in this nascent field, a mistake that could stunt business before it has a chance to take off. One executive said the industry needs to educate consumers with a coordinated marketing campaign.
"There are companies that have muddied the waters," said Mike Wagner, Linksys' marketing director. "We have to take some real basic steps to educate customers what the trade-offs are in each of the technologies."