cc: All Users: The trouble with wireless is there's no leader to follow

John Breeden II

Welcome to another year of the cc: All Users column. Those of you who keep track of these things know that in this column we give you an overview of emerging technologies and trends based on our observations during lab testing.

Last year we predicted that some type of wireless standard would emerge as the dominant force in the industry. Sadly, this has not happened yet, and consumers are busy building the largest spaghetti network of wireless connectivity ever seen. The standard IEEE 802.11b networks, especially in government, do not seem to be losing any ground to the much faster 802.11a networks.

The 11a networks offer a lot more speed, but only very recently have vendors started to add deep security functions. Consumers who want to play Warcraft III with their friends might not mind snoops on their network, but the lack of security has prevented most government agencies from upgrading. As most 11a network vendors add the ability to join a radius server to their box of security goodies, the 11a platform may see some gains.

The newcomer, the 802.11g standard, keeps threatening to blow open the market, but has not really gone far beyond the talking phase. The 11g standard is probably the best of the three because it offers speeds higher than 11b and more security than 11a. But that also makes it slower than 11a.

A different market

Bluetooth still retains a large user base, but the Bluetooth technologies pavilion at most trade shows has been shrinking over the years. It still has a lot of promise for the services industry, for uses such as automatic payment at a gasoline pump, but I doubt we will see much of it on mainstream systems.

Wireless standards problems also are shaking up the cellular phone market, which is important not only for phones but also notebook computers with cellular modems, such as the kind found in military-grade rugged models. Cellular Digital Packet Data, the reliable standard for years, is giving way to Global System for Mobile Communications.

But many local and state governments have installed CDPD networks, so moving to GSM might not be economically feasible despite the advantages in bandwidth.

The point is that company officials have no leader to follow. If they standardize on one network, they risk losing sales to customers with conflicting standards in their offices. The Intel Centrino chip will help because most companies will ship Centrino with both 11a and 11b, with a flash upgrade to add 11g.

Most companies, especially in the notebook realm, are unwilling to take a chance on backing just one standard. So you will see a lot of multifunction wireless notebooks for sale. The price will be higher, and the weight and form factors may suffer slightly as well.

When you are traveling in a jungle, it's best to have the right tools for the job. With wireless, for the moment, you need the whole tool box.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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