Wi-Fi Gets Even Better

The Wi-Fi Alliance announced today a new peer-to-peer specification is in the works with “Wi-Fi Direct” certification expected to begin next year.

Hot on the heels of final 802.11n ratification, the Wi-Fi Alliance today announced that it is nearing completion of a new specification that will enable Wi-Fi devices to connect to one another independent of wireless LANs and hotspots. Devices conforming to the peer-to-peer spec will be able to swap data without joining a traditional home or office WLAN or connecting to a hotspot.

Known to insiders as “Wi-Fi peer-to-peer,” the publicly branded name will be “Wi-Fi Direct.” A Wi-Fi Direct CERTIFIED device could be any Wi-Fi-enabled device, such as an iPhone or other smartphone, iPod touch, digital camera, laptop, netbook, or peripherals, such as printers, mice, and keyboards.

“It will expand the personal area network (PAN) experience with all the characteristics of Wi-Fi that people love, like bandwidth, throughput, and range,” Wi-Fi Alliance executive director Edgar Figueroa told Wi-Fi Planet.

Devices that have been certified to the new specification will also be able to create connections with the hundreds of millions of legacy devices already Wi-Fi CERTIFIED. One-to-one connection are possible—one iPhone user can connect to a printer or a laptop or a digital camera, for example; or a group of several devices can connect simultaneously—an office full of laptop users can print to a Wi-Fi-enabled printer or swap files with one another, for example.

“This really is going to be a technology to allow a brand new way to use Wi-Fi,” says Figueroa. “It will be a new and popular way to use Wi-Fi, to connect devices directly to each other, not just one laptop to another, but really things like peripherals over Wi-Fi. It does not require a network and an AP to leverage all the power of the Wi-Fi radio in your device.”

The uses and benefits at both consumer and enterprise levels are myriad.

“For example, imagine taking a picture and displaying it immediately on your HDTV, or walking into a private enterprise and printing the file you want to leave behind without getting on the network, or having a remote control that operates throughout the entire home,” says Figueroa.

The new specification will not replace any of the other 802.11 specs, rather it will be a feature that can enhance any 802.11a/b/g/n device. “It’s an expansion of everything we’ve done up to now,” says Figueroa. “Wi-Fi Direct could be another feature of the Wi-Fi product. It can work with and interact with legacy devices as an adjunct or an add-on, and it can also be an expansion to new products and applications.”

Entirely new chipsets are not needed, says Figueroa, but can be built to enhance performance or serve specific applications. “The change can come at the chip level or as an OS upgrade or a software upgrade. Your existing Wi-Fi equipment could support Wi-Fi Direct in the future. There are a range of processing power and memories etc.; it will depend on the specifics of the product.”

Atheros, for example, has its own peer-to-peer Wi-Fi technology (“Atheros Direct Connect”), which was first unveiled at CES 2008. An Atheros spokesman said that Direct Connect is fully future-compatible with the new Wi-Fi Direct specification.

Atheros has enabled Direct Connect in its ROCm Wi-Fi chips for mobile devices, such as Microsoft Zune HD, and with handset manufacturers who have launched smartphones featuring Direct Connect’s AP mode capabilities. The chipmaker began shipping 11n chips with PAN functionality targeting PC applications in the second half of this year.

While point-to-point connectivity is a relatively nascent technology, Direct Connect’s performance is well-proven, said the Atheros spokesman. “As more consumers experience the expanded functionality that Wi-Fi can deliver and how it enhances the wireless experience—enabling them to freely move their content between devices wherever they are—the more we expect that Direct Connect and the WFA’s new specification will become a ‘must have’ for connecting devices and content,” he said.

Intel also supports the new Wi-Fi Direct specification, which will be incorporated into its Intel My WiFi Technology, which a spokeswoman says will be available next year.

The Wi-Fi Alliance expects to complete the specification by the end of 2009. Certification is scheduled to begin in mid-2010.

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-Fi Planet. She spoke with Edgar Figueroa from her office in mid-coast Maine.

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