Draft Dodging

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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