Wireless and weirdness prevail in Vegas

One thing everybody agrees on – Comdex ain’t what it used to be. Not only were big names like IBM Corp. absent, so were the booth babes, clowns, toys and tap dancers. Everything seemed a bit off kilter. The shuttle busses wouldn’t show, the cab drivers were scarier, the speed bumps rose higher and the tuxedoed bouncers loomed larger. Even the press room, in the past a safe haven, was affected. The desk ladies insisted I wear a “corporate buyer” badge, even when I flashed a business card and our latest issue.

With the exception of mobile and wireless, there weren’t many gee-whiz products here, either. Nokia Corp. picked up the slack by making a slew of new phone announcements, and the booth was jammed. Notable was the 6800 messaging phone, which looks like a thick cell phone, but cleverly unfolds to reveal a large QWERTY keyboard on either side of the display. Nokia’s made a deal with Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) to use its software, too, allowing users to tie into their corporate e-mail systems. Partner Celesta also demonstrated a real estate application built using its mBusiness application framework that lets agents update listings in the field using their Nokia phones.

Linksys Group Inc., NetGear Inc. and other SOHO hardware vendors rolled out a predictable array of new products. Standouts include NetGear’s new eight-port switch with integrated wireless VPN technology to secure the wireless transmissions (US$1,049) and Linksys’ power booster for 802.11b networks (US$99). The Linksys box attaches to your wireless access point and boosts the signal to 25dbi, the maximum allowed by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The price is cheap, but because it uses two antennas (one to boost transmission, one to boost reception), it only works with other wireless devices that use two antennas, which knocks out 2Wire Inc., NetGear and D-Link Corp., at least. It may work with access points from Actiontec Electronics Inc. and SMC Networks Inc., though. We’ll have to test it and see.

But all in all, the weirdness prevailed. At a party Tuesday night, silicon maker Broadcom Corp. formally kicked off its “54g” marketing strategy. It had already jumped the gun by shipping boatloads of chips built on the draft 802.11g specification to Linksys, NetGear and others months before the standard is ratified. But now, Jeff Thermond, Broadcom’s vice president and general manager for the home and wireless networking business unit, announced plans to launch an interoperability testing program for vendors using its “pre-g” (or what it calls “54g” chips).

Talk about off-kilter. Broadcom is a vendor, not a standards body, one of several that have committed to building 802.11g chips. Understandably, the Wi-Fi Alliance, the standards body whose job it is to conduct interoperability testing, is concerned.

“This ‘pre-g’ stuff caught us off guard,” says Dennis Eaton, alliance board chairman. “It’s not so much that vendors are selling pre-standard products, but we’re not sure they’ll interoperate.” Or necessarily work with the final specification, for that matter.

Add the fact that faster 22Mbps products from D-Link and others built using Texas Instruments Inc.’s proprietary 802.11b chip are selling like hotcakes, and you’ve got a potential interoperability mess for consumers. (To get the high speeds you must use access points and adapters from the same vendor, otherwise, data rates fall back to 11Mbps.) Interoperability is less important in the home, where you’ll likely find products from a single vendor, but once hot spots proliferate and users discover their faster gear doesn’t work well with others, vendors will have some explaining to do.