WiFi Alliance shows teeth, warns silicon makers from pre-empting 802.11n approval

by Guy Kewney | posted on 12 October 2004

Nearly two years ago, Broadcom and Linksys drove a coach and a team of horses through the fences erected by the WiFi Alliance around WiFi standards, by announcing, building and shipping devices based on 802.11g wireless - when the IEEE had not yet ratified the standard. Now, the Alliance is anxious to prevent a similar attempt at pre-empting standards on the new 802.11n Task Group work which will quadruple WiFi speeds - eventually.

Guy Kewney

The Alliance has taken the unusual step of warning its members to hold their fire. The Alliance issued a public statement, saying that it "will not certify data rate enhancement features based on the IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 802.11n amendment to the 802.11 wireless LAN standard until the standard is ratified."

No IEEE 802.11n products currently exist, and none are expected to exist until the standard is completed in approximately two years (November 2006), the warning adds.

And, going to the limits of its power, the Alliance has threatened: "To help assure that WiFi technology users continue to have a positive experience, the WiFi Alliance will revoke the WiFi certification of any product with claims of IEEE 802.11n capabilities if that product is proven to adversely impact the interoperability of other WiFi CERTIFIED products."

Nobody is prepared to accuse anybody in particular of trying to jump the gun on 11n - but the technology has the potential to make legacy WiFi LAN devices obsolete, and create a new, de facto standard. First out of the block with working silicon could well establish a lead in the market which would be hard to match by rivals.

That is what happened with 802.11g, which quadrupled the data speeds of the original 11b standard, when Broadcom released silicon based on its "best guess" about what the standard would be when ratified - a move which caused considerable rage and confusion inside the Alliance.

What isn't in question, is the Alliance's determination to have an influence on the rollout of the new standard. But good intentions, of course, are no stronger than the will or the means to enforce them, and it's hard to see anybody in the silicon camp being deterred by the strictures of a club of hardware builders. The problem is, the silicon vendors - the people who have most to gain - aren't 100% in the Alliance. That's just one of their paddles in the water.

Well, will anybody who matters actually care? Possibly. The "approved" stamp of the Alliance is worth something. But the Alliance doesn't have the funds of a giant like Intel, and couldn't conceivably match the advertising budget which Intel has pumped into its own branding scheme, "Intel Inside" - in fact, the Alliance couldn't even match the branding spend of Cisco subsidiary, Linksys, which made huge profits when it jumped the gun on 802.11g two years ago.

It's probably fair to say that the average purchaser would recognise "Centrino" before they remembered the Alliance logo. Some manufacturers would probably be prepared to risk being ejected from the Alliance if the reward was a six month lead on rivals; losing that logo would, they will argue, not cost them a single lost sale.

Intel is already evangelising the next potential standard. Marketing engineer James M Wilson has published a white paper explaining how this technology might go forward.

Intel is quite probably not the target that the Alliance is aiming at. Rather, the WiFi organisation has decided that if one silicon foundry is talking about a standard which is over two years away, it would be best to warn rivals that this isn't a starting gun for the race for WiFi compatibility.

The Alliance's announcement isn't futile, however. The threat of losing the WiFi badge may be small (some would probably say that even so, it is worth taking seriously) but the Alliance does have one other card up its sleeve: compatibility testing.

It's one thing to produce a chip which works. It's quite another matter to ensure that it will co-work with rival chips. And the process of finding out whether it does or doesn't, is far from trivial. There, the WiFi Alliance does have a genuine contribution to make; organising and running a plug-fest and co-ordinating the testing results is virtually impossible without the co-operation of other manufacturers.

Silicon makers may regard the manufacturers as easily led - and indeed, experience shows they are - by the hope of quick profit. But it's one thing to get silicon installed on a board; it's quite another matter to write the software which makes it communicate successfully with another board, if the people who make the other board won't help you diagnose problems.

In the end, it's a safe bet that 11n will be launched ahead of WiFi Alliance certification. But at least the Alliance has acted, this time, and no doubt it will let its voice be heard again over the next months if it sees some of the flock breaking out early.

And if it truly does withdraw, not just approval, but its cooperation in testing for inter-working compatibility, then one or two makers who might otherwise have gone ahead regardless, may well decide that the risk of being left on the shore when everybody else sets sail, is a real one.

Gartner's Ken Dulaney, a leading analyst covering wireless LANs added his support to the Alliance warning: "Vendors took advantage of unsuspecting buyers when they touted pre-standard technology for 802.11g that later did not meet the standard," he says in the official announcement. "Left unchecked, the industry is unfortunately poised to repeat itself with 802.11n," he added.

Gartner, he says, "intends to support the Alliance's stance using the full power of our influence with our clients."

It'll be interesting to see how much power that amounts to. Weighed against a perception of commercial advantage on the scale which Linksys gained from going with the pre-11g standard, it's hard to value it highly. But at least, they're trying ...

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