Wi-Fi: doing it right the second time

Outside the Box

I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole Wi-Fi business. I’ve been thinking particularly about the huge amount of money that companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Dell and HP are pouring into initiatives designed to popularize wirelessly connected, 802.11b-compatible mobile computing. “What’s the big idea?” I have asked myself. Why, for example, would Intel create a whole new brand – Centrino – just to market notebooks?

I came to the conclusion that all these companies are learning from history. I have been around the PC industry long enough to remember the days when most PCs were not connected to a network. They were “personal” in every sense of the word. They typically ran a variety of different operating systems and they were completely self-contained.

Unfortunately, they were also pretty inefficient. Any time you wanted to share anything between one computer and another, it was a huge pain. Either you had to fiddle around with putting things on floppy disks or you had to run slow and technically challenging communications software on each computer and rig a cable between the computers.

And the Internet, of course, was still mostly a twinkle in the eye of Vint Cerf (the much-heralded “father of the Internet”). So people used their desktop computers for self-contained spreadsheet work, word-processed their documents and entered information into databases that were difficult to share.

Then came the personal computer network. All of a sudden, files could easily be shared between computers, printers could be accessed by multiple users – and the magic of corporate electronic mail was born. While all of this was happening, notebook computers were slowly making their way into the workplace.

And while these notebook computers quickly became clients of the corporate network when they were in the office – and sometimes even at home using VPNs (virtual private networks) and high-speed Internet connections – they were still very limited. They had no way of doing anything with files that were updated or created, nor could they offer access to anything other than what was on their local storage systems.

A variety of solutions evolved to address this problem – and none were particularly elegant.

And then came Wi-Fi. The performance of Wi-Fi is so superior to anything that preceded it that the reasons for enthusiasm by the likes of Microsoft and Intel start to become apparent. It is quite common to achieve data rates of 11 Mbps or better using Wi-Fi, rather than the pitiful 56Kbps rates that even a good mobile phone-based solution could offer up until now.

So it all fits. Wi-Fi should do for mobile workers what the widespread availability of PC networks did for desktop users back in the early 1990s. And it will be even more compelling as Wi-Fi-enabled notebooks and Tablet PCs offer the added bonus of e-mail and the Web.

Wi-Fi does not, of course, come without a price. Internal use of Wi-Fi within corporations will require a layer of wireless network management and attention to the security implications of allowing wireless network access to the corporate network.

But the promise of Wi-Fi is significant enough that you can be sure considerable resources are being set on these challenges. Wi-Fi could drive increased notebook and Tablet PC sales (which is why Dell, HP, Intel and Microsoft are such big backers) and sales of operating system software that provides optimal support for wireless networks (Microsoft again). In fact, Intel estimates that by Christmas, half the notebook computers being sold will use the Wi-Fi-optimized Centrino chip set. So you can see that it all adds up to a continuing push for ever-greater sales of Wi-Fi solutions. Watch this space for more.

Wheelwright is a freelance journalist, author and broadcaster. He most recently served as editorial director of StockHouse Media Corp.