Networking Notes: 802.11nuh-Uh

By Michael Hall

October 26, 2006

Vendors that are selling 802.11n have decided the imperatives of their product cycles trump the long-term benefit of their customers, who they're busy turning into beta testers.

If I told you I wanted to sell you a DVD player that wasn't guaranteed to play store-bought movies in color after Christmas, would you buy it? How about a wireless network card I can't guarantee will operate at full speed with other vendors' access points in six months?

Even for the computing industry, which is notorious for putting the burden of ensuring compatibility on its customers, wireless networking has been something of a basket case over the years, with vendors introducing everything from proprietary equipment to not-quite-standard standards. In the aisles of computer stores everywhere, a clerk's lecture on the difference between megahertz and megabytes has been replaced by a guided tour of the intricacies involved in choosing between 802.11b, g, a or something a third-tier vendor cobbled together hoping to strike it rich on customer ignorance.

Some industry fiddling has been innocuous. "Speed boosted" access points that at least stick to the base standards have been a common sight in the last few years. While vendors have been happy to nudge users toward buying a top-to-bottom, NIC-to-WAP bundle, they've left the door open for hardware from other companies to work at the base specs for a standard.

With 802.11n, though, things aren't looking so certain as the companies selling to SOHO buyers have decided the imperatives of their product cycles trump the long-term benefit of their customers, who they're busy turning into beta testers.

Spurred on in part by the enthusiasm power users have for seeing the latest and greatest in their favorite software, even at the risk of some bugs, software companies have increasingly pushed "beta releases" out the door to both keep user interest high and, perhaps, preempt migration to something newer and shinier.

When beta testing involves a free download, it's not such a bad thing. I'm typing this column in a text editor I like to get betas for, and I did some research for it using a beta release of Firefox. My boss just chatted with me over a beta version of my IM software. You wouldn't catch me paying for a beta release, though, because beta software, by definition, isn't quite ready. It might be pretty good, but the developer hasn't put his or her full seal of approval on it and you can't be sure of what you're going to end up with if last-minute changes come up. When you see "beta" on a release, there's an implied "caveat emptor" lurking underneath.

When you put it like that, beta software doesn't sound like a terrible idea, because you can probably at least download an updated version once it's finished, but beta hardware sounds sort of loony, because most of the time you're not going to get a "finished" plastic box to replace the one you paid for. That hasn't kept companies heavily invested in wireless networking from selling what amounts to beta hardware built around the draft 802.11n specification. While they're happy to promise compatibility with their own equipment, thus encouraging users to buy an entire stack of hardware with the same label, none of them are particularly enthused about promising much more than the bare minimum when it comes to working well with hardware from other vendors.

In other words, your super-fast 802.11n network, if it's based on the current crop of gear built against the not-quite-ready 802.11n standard, might be superfast for only you once the standard is finalized. Friends or clients who outfitted their laptops with a wireless NIC from another company? They might not end up being so impressed when they get dropped down to 802.11g or b speeds because of compatibility issues. You might not be happy to get locked into a particular vendor's product line further down the road, either.

There are a few exceptions. ASUS, for instance, recently promised that it would make its hardware firmware-upgradeable to a finalized version of 802.11n once such a thing exists, meaning that someone buying ASUS gear is still, at this moment, a hardware beta tester with the promise of getting a free upgrade to a finished product. Other vendors aren't so eager to make such promises, either because they aren't confident of their ability to roll out upgrades or because they're hoping to keep users locked into their hardware stack out of fear of breaking compatibility with their own wireless networks.

Some folks don't mind that kind of risk: Brand loyalists, people who like life on the bleeding edge or someone who doesn't anticipate sharing a network with others who might have different hardware might be happy to go ahead and upgrade to 802.11n. The rest of us, though, are better served by waiting for a final standard and looking out for our own bottom lines ... not those of the vendors.

From small offices to universities, Michael Hall has been using, maintaining and writing about networks for nearly 15 years. He's the managing editor of Enterprise Networking Planet and co-author of "The Joy of Linux."

Story courtesy of PracticallyNetworked.

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