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Consumer Wi-Fi on the Rise, Spilling Into the Workplace

Back in 2001, few analysts expected then-consumer-grade Wi-Fi to broadly penetrate the workplace, much less surpass Ethernet for enterprise network access. Today, a decade later, there's a new Wi-Fi tidal wave gathering speed on the horizon.

According to a new survey published by the Wi-Fi Alliance, two-thirds of consumers now insist upon Wi-Fi when buying any new phone or tech item. This mirrors ABI Research stats: During 4Q10, consumer electronics and handsets represented over half of all Wi-Fi shipments, with 18 to 22 percent compound annual growth expected through 2015. Much of this surging demand comes from Millenials. 75 percent would rather skip a latte than Wi-Fi, while 67 percent spend more time on Wi-Fi than watching the boob tube.

For enterprises, these findings portend a future packed with bring-your-own Wi-Fi gadgets - from stationary devices like printers and projectors to portable - even wearable - communicators. But how these new devices connect is changing. With Wi-Fi Direct, users no longer need access points (or IT blessing) to communicate. Instead, Wi-Fi Direct gadgets find each other to form as-needed peer-to-peer connections, secured with a single button-push or PIN.

Expansion is good for everyone

According to Wi-Fi Alliance spokesperson Sarah Morris, this market explosion may be driven by consumers, but will also boost businesses.

"More Wi-Fi chips being sold is a benefit to everyone," said Morris. "Personal and enterprise product interests differ, but sometimes move in parallel--for example, Wi-Fi video conferencing. Where needs intersect, enterprises can get a lift from mass market prices and greater choice."

This has already proven true for smartphones, which trail only laptops as the Wi-Fi device most likely to be purchased in 2011. Although some companies have resisted employee-liable phones, most now embrace them to some degree, expanding mobility at lower cost. "Diverse handsets [like iPhones and Androids] have resulted in far greater choice, and their adoption is driving Wi-Fi farther into enterprises and small businesses," said Morris.

Power to the people

Today, only a handful of products are Wi-Fi Direct certified, including one Android smartphone and five video devices. But the Alliance expects Wi-Fi Direct-capable consumer products to blossom because it simplifies use and eliminates external dependencies. "By reusing a device's existing radio to support direct connection to other devices, Wi-Fi Direct greatly expands Wi-Fi use cases," said Morris. "Communication can now take place anywhere, without requiring an access point or setup."

Many of the use cases driving Wi-Fi Direct - wireless photo sharing, multi-user gaming, video streaming - are consumer-oriented. However, employers are likely to find many interesting business use cases. "For example, in conference centers, Wi-Fi Direct can enable walk-up-and-print centers and wireless connections between laptops and projectors," said Morris.

However, that independence also raises a few concerns. In-building spectrum--already limited--will now be shared by Wi-Fi Direct. (This trend is already being felt today with personal mobile hotspots.) Furthermore, Wi-Fi Direct devices can connect to each other at the same time that they connect to an infrastructure-mode access point - a scenario some companies may want to control, even ban. According to Morris, Wi-Fi Direct includes enterprise-friendly features that were designed to address these concerns.

"First, every connection is automatically secured with WPA2--there is no such thing as an open Wi-Fi Direct connection, and users must [explicitly] access any connection request," she said. "Wi-Fi Direct devices are required to announce themselves, which lets IT know what is on-prem and set [policies] related to Wi-Fi Direct use."

For example, access points may optionally deny connections by devices simultaneously engaged in Wi-Fi Direct communication. Another option would let access points send commands to Wi-Fi Direct devices regarding desired coexistence mode, channel, and power limitations. But Morris said that it's too early to tell how enterprise-class products are going to implement Wi-Fi Direct or make use of these "enterprise-friendly" options.