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802.11b Finds Second Life

Remember 802.11b, the Wi-Fi standard that lit the fuse of today's explosive wireless networking market? Despite the faster 802.11g grabbing most of the headlines, the original Wi-Fi technology has been reborn for handheld devices.

"Stick with 802.11b," said Gartner research vice president Ken Dulaney. "It's got a lotta legs for some time to come."

Dulaney was speaking of caution surrounding the Centrino 802.11g launch, but could just as well be commenting on the resurgence of 802.11b in cell phones, PDAs and other handheld gadgets.

For small devices seeking to connect to the Internet or the home office, 802.11b is still "a viable option," according to Jeff Abramowitz, senior wireless LAN marketing director at chipmaker Broadcom.

The number of cell phones shipping in the second half of 2003 jumped more than 19 percent, to over 118 million devices compared with the previous year, according to researchers at IDC.

"Cell phones and PDAs can easily benefit from 11b and we believe that the 11b client market will actually continue growing," says Will Strauss, analyst for the research firm Forward Concepts.

As anyone with a Wi-Fi enabled PDA has discovered, major obstacles to having 802.11b onboard in handhelds are size and power consumption.

Broadcom's product takes 100 components spread across three chips and consolidates it all onto a single piece of silicon the size of a postage stamp.

Along with reduced size, the new chip shrinks by up to 97% the power consumption of Wi-Fi, according to Broadcom. As most handheld devices spend most of their lives in 'standby' mode, power-hungry Wi-Fi can be a real problem. A combination of hardware and software "can add several days of battery life to a Wi-Fi-enabled PDA".

"This open the door for us to enable countless new applications," said Alan Ross, Broadcom President and CEO.

The chip is already shipping to select customers, according to the company.

Broadcom is not alone in companies using 802.11b to bring Wi-Fi to the handheld market.

Intel, producer of the popular Centrino Wi-Fi chipset, recently bought Mobilian, a Hillsboro, Oregon, designer of 802.11b and Bluetooth chipsets destined for cell phones.

Texas Instruments will make an 802.11a/b/g chip for Motorola cell phones, according to Strauss.

Philips Semiconducts, according to reports, is expected to release a dual-chip 802.11b set that is smaller and consumes less power than current products.

Broadcom's Abramowitz sees 802.11b move to handheld devices as a natural segmentation of the wireless market and maturity of Wi-Fi. The faster 54Mbps 802.11g will dominate enterprise Wi-Fi access points.

Strauss agrees. He says he "can't conceive of a new 802.11b WLAN gateway shipping in the future."

But there is still a bright future for 802.11b, say analysts.

"There is a place for 'b', especially outside of laptops," says Julie Ask, a Jupiter Research senior analyst.

Despite its growth in the WLAN market, 802.11g may be overkill, according to Strauss.

"Other than enterprise applications, how many people do you know who actually need 54Mbps -- even in their homes or near hotspots? In the consumer market, 11g mostly confers bragging rights," he says.

A plethora of devices, where Wi-Fi is used but not center stage, will continue to use 802.11b, says Allen Nogee, analyst for In-Stat/MDR.

The original Wi-Fi flavor may fade away, blending into newer 802.11a/b/g products, but until the price and power demands of the latest Wi-Fi entrants are reduced, 802.11b will be around for years.