TECH TALK: Disruptive Technologies: 802.11b (Wi-Fi)

A year or so ago, the wireless picture was quite clear. There would be Bluetooth to take care of the “last-feet” and 3G for the rest of the wireless connectivity. Bluetooth products were expected to eliminate cables completely. Telecoms bid up the 3G licences to huge prices in anticipation. But everyone had reckoned without the grand daddy of connectivity protocols – Ethernet.

An excerpt from a Salomon Smith Barney report on the evolution of 802.11b:

The evolution of 802.11b is embedded in the birth of the 802.11 Wireless LAN standard itself. Approved in 1997 by the IEEE 802 committee, 802.11 details the framework necessary for a standard method of wireless networked communications. It uses the 2.4GHz microwave band designated for low-power unlicensed use. However, 802.11 is limited to throughputs of 2Mbps only. In September 1999, the 802 committee extended the specification. This extension, 802.11b, allowed new, more advanced encoding techniques. This pushed up the throughput to a much more respectable 5.5Mbps, and then up to 11Mbps.

Writes Glen Fleishmann, who runs a weblog on 802.11b:

PCs and Macs may communicate intercompatibly over 802.11b, using equipment from a variety of vendors. The client hardware is typically a PC card or a PCI card, although USB and other forms of 802.11b radios are also being introduced. Adapters for PDAs, such as Palm OS and PocketPC based devices, are due out in mid-2001.

802.11b is becoming the only standard deployed for public short-range networks, such as those found at airports, hotels, conference centers, and coffee shops and restaurants. Several companies currently offer paid hourly, session-based, or unlimited monthly access via their deployed networks around the U.S. and internationally.

At 0.7 Mbps, Bluetooth does not offer much by way of bandwidth. At 10 metres, the distance it can operate on also a tenth that of what 802.11b offers. Writes Rafe Needleman, comparing Bluetooth and 802.11b, “Connecting devices to computers without wires was what Bluetooth was originally pitched for, and it sounds cool, but we should have asked at the start: how big is the market for wireless wires? It’s not tiny, but it is neither as interesting nor as large as the wireless networking market, which the Wi-Fi (802.11b) standard dominates.”

Writes William Gurley in an article entitled “Bye-Bye Bluetooth”:

The real problem is that 802.11 is caught in an upward spiral of increasing returns. As the first player out of the gate, this technology is enjoying all the benefits typically awarded a first-mover. As volumes skyrocket, costs decline. As costs decline, the number of applications the technology can serve naturally increases. As this potential application universe expands, other solutions meet an early grave. Such will be the case with Bluetooth.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.