Draft Dodging

By Ed Sutherland

December 09, 2002

Will wireless networking companies releasing products based on the draft version of the 802.11g specification mean a brighter holiday season for retailers or a confusing New Year for consumers?

Despite the knowledge that the final approval of the 54Mbps 802.11g standard is still months away, wireless networking companies are getting on board early and releasing products based on the draft version of the specification. Will the move mean a brighter Christmas for retailers or a confusing New Year for consumers?

The 802.11g standard improves the speed of wireless networking to 54Mbps over 802.11b's 11Mbps. The new standard also operates in the 2.4Ghz band, so it it's backwards-compatible with 802.11b. Not surprisingly, the spec is long awaited by both consumers and retailers. "Customers are screaming for it," says Jeff Abramowitz, WLAN Senior Director for Broadcom , just one of the chipmakers which have unveiled chipsets using the as-yet-unratified 802.11g standard.

At November's Comdex tradeshow, among the many computer gadgets on display were several devices employing the pre-standard 802.11g. Linksys, for example, says it will have its "Wireless-G" PC card, access point and wireless router on shelves this month.

A Clear Demand

"There is clearly a demand for higher speed 2.4Ghz WLAN products," said Victor Tsao, Linksys President and CEO.

Belkin, Netgear and Buffalo Technology have also announced 802.11g products.

Yet, Chicago-area based US Robotics (USR), while announcing support for 802.11g, says it will wait before introducing any products based on the standard.

"We will not rush to market before the IEEE 802.11g standard is ratified because pre-standard products cannot be guaranteed to be fully compliant with the final specification," says Kevin Goulet, director of product management for USR.

Keith Waryas, an analyst for the research firm IDC, says the rush to get 802.11g products on the shelves is to gain market advantage. Abramowitz earlier told 802.11 Planet that retailers see 802.11g as a way to "charge a premium" over current wireless networking products.

The 11g Bandwagon

Will the decision to wait until spring or summer 2003 for the final approval of the new high-speed networking standard by the IEEE hurt USR Robotics position in the WLAN market?

"We believe the market won't jump on 802.11g," says Juan Lopez, manager of network products at the company.

The demand has grown to a level where Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance had to warn companies that were leap-frogging over the usual Wi-Fi Certification approval process. "These actions undermine the value of an industry group," Eaton said in one press report.

Eaton is also the marketing manager of chipmaker Intersil . Since November 4, Intersil has been shipping its 802.11g chipset, the Prism GT. Broadcom's AirForce 54g chip will power Linksys and other devices. Texas Instruments is also releasing a pre-ratified 802.11g chip.

Intersil believes there will be no changes to the "meat" of the 802.11g draft. It's a matter of "getting all the 't's crossed and 'i's dotted," believes John Allen, a spokesman for the chipmaker.

Chip makers Agere and Infineon Technologies will wait until late 2003, early 2004 to ship their co-developed 802.11a/b/g chip. Proxim says it will also wait until the standard's final approval.

Potential Pitfalls

Where are the potential pitfalls of products relying on a draft version of the 802.11g? It comes down to compatibility.

"If I were a Cisco, I'd wait" until the final version of 802.11g was approved, says Waryas. Deploying draft 802.11g alongside 802.11b could present security concerns for large companies, says the analyst.

Although pre-ratified 802.11g products are said to be backwards compatible with 802.11b, Waryas says such claims should be taken with a grain of salt.

The analyst says flooding the market with 802.11g products before the standard is compatible could cause confusion and leave a bad taste in consumers' mouths. If user satisfaction drops, the market for 802.11g products could sour, just as it did for Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), says Waryas.

As WEP security became a joke within companies trying to secure their wireless networks, the Wi-Fi Alliance took parts of the draft 802.11i security standard and unveiled Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). "Users need a stronger standards-based security solution than WEP, and they need it now," announced Eaton at the time.

This isn't the first debate over marketing versus standards -- and it won't be the last.



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