A Closer Look at Wi-Fi Direct

By Jeff Goldman

November 13, 2009

The new protocol will support direct connections for everything from sharing photos on a television to printing documents in a hotel business center.

The Wi-Fi Alliance recently announced Wi-Fi Direct, a new peer-to-peer protocol that will enable direct connections between Wi-Fi client devices, allowing users to do everything from syncing data between a smartphone and a laptop to displaying pictures on a flat screen television or printing them on a wireless printer—all without requiring the user to join a traditional Wi-Fi network.

The WFA intends to finalize the specification by the end of 2009, and to begin certifying products in mid-2010. In the meantime, many chip manufacturers (and Wi-Fi Alliance member companies) are offering their own pre-specification solutions, including Atheros Direct Connect, Intel My WiFi Technology, and Marvell Mobile Hotspot—all of which should be easily upgradeable to the final specification next year.

In fact, interoperability with legacy devices is a key benefit of the protocol: not only will Wi-Fi Direct generally require just a simple software upgrade, but only one of the connecting devices (not both) has to be certified to the new specification.

“Any Wi-Fi CERTIFIED a or g device out there can make Wi-Fi Direct connections with devices that have been certified to the protocol,” says Wi-Fi Alliance marketing director Kelly Davis-Felner.

And Davis-Felner says it’s crucial to understand that Wi-Fi Direct is significantly different from (and much more secure than) ad hoc mode. “It has WPA2 security protections in place, and should be quite a bit easier to enable and use than ad hoc historically has been—and of course we expect it to be much more widely deployed,” she says.

Potential applications

Andy Davidson, senior director of software engineering at Atheros, says Wi-Fi Direct is ultimately about enabling connections on the fly. “If you’re sitting at home, obviously, you have all your own devices connected to your access point—but if a guest comes over and has a Wi-Fi phone, and wants to show you some pictures from it, it would be nice if they could easily show the pictures on your TV,” he says.

That kind of functionality, Davidson says, opens up a wide variety of potential applications.

“Wi-Fi for wireless Internet access is obviously very popular, but to also be able to use it to share files, to share photographs, to print documents…to be able to push a presentation to the people you’re presenting to—all of these usages, I think, are just going to make Wi-Fi technology all the more desirable,” he says.

Intel senior product manager Gary Martz says Wi-Fi Direct will drive a fundamental shift in the way most people use Wi-Fi. “Wi-Fi Direct is the specification that’s going to take Wi-Fi from just being a networking technology to being a mass market consumer technology for connecting your devices…without ever having to know what an SSID is, or what WPA2 security is, or what Wi-Fi Protected Setup is,” he says.

Still, Martz says it will inevitably take some time for Wi-Fi Direct to reach the enterprise. “Consumers are going to grow to love it, and then you’re going to see an evolution—just as with a lot of new technologies in the corporate space—where it flows from the consumer to small and medium businesses, and then the corporate IT manager puts some miles on it in validation, and then they’ll start to roll it out,” he says.

Enterprise security

To that end, Martz says, the specification places a premium on security. “We developed Wi-Fi Direct to have separate security domains, so your wireless LAN connection is a separate security domain from your Wi-Fi Direct network,” he says. “And the corporate IT manager can manage that crossover—does he want to allow that crossover, or does he want to firewall it?”

The IT manager’s answer to that question, inevitably, depends upon the application. “In the case of allowing a guest to the corporate environment to have access to a printer, those security domains are going to be firewalled, so that he can securely provide print capabilities to a visitor without compromising anything on his corporate wireless LAN,” Martz says.

For consumers, though, the real concern is ease of use. Sameer Bidichandani, senior director of technology strategy at Marvell, says Wi-Fi Direct’s simplicity is a key strength, particularly for the average consumer who doesn’t know the difference between an AP and a client. “Ease of use is a huge factor here, and ease of use drives volume,” he says. “As it gets easier to use, more people buy and use it and like it—and that’s how the industry as a whole benefits.”

Finally, Bidichandani says, another key benefit of the protocol lies in the simple fact that it’s software, not hardware. “Every device that we’ve shipped in the embedded space that goes into cell phones, gaming platforms, MP3 players… or even printers and plugged-in gaming platforms, can benefit from this—with just a software upgrade,” he says.

Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. He is based in Southern California. For more by this author, see "Meraki in Tiers."

Originally published on .

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