Pulling the plug on the future

Wireless fidelity, or WiFi, could make our computers as mobile as phones and transform commerce. By Faisal Islam

Net news

Sunday December 3, 2000

The word wireless has connotations of chaps in dinner jackets behind large microphones. But in the United States, wireless has become the buzzword of new economy hype merchants.

The technology goes far beyond the futuristic mobile telephones that will connect directly to the internet. It involves connecting networks of laptops without wires, and 'intelligent' fridges and microwaves that will automatically order your food from an internet grocery or adjust your central heating.

The last example is from the Bluetooth hall of fame. Bluetooth is a technology that allows electronic devices within a few metres of each other to communicate and synchronise information, creating a personal area network, or Pan. Last month's Comdex 2000 in Las Vegas, the computing industry's biggest trade show, was expected to be a showcase for Bluetooth.

But the technology - named after Harald Bluetooth, a Nordic warrior king -- may have a fight on its hands. Techies seemed more interested in a similar technology called WiFi, short for wireless fidelity, which is trying to occupy the same part of the radio spectrum.

Some of its proponents even argue that WiFi almost completely obviates the need for Bluetooth, which allows the splendid possibility of a new economy reversal of the Viking invasion, of sorts.

WiFi is not quite a new kid on the block. Its previous name, 802.11b, sounded more like a council bylaw prohibiting tree-felling than the future of wireless working. The most advanced manifestations of the technology were rebranded as WiFi earlier this year by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (Weca). But the change is more than cosmetic.

Just as with mobile telephony the establishment of rigid standards taken up by a wide range of manufacturers increases the value of the technology. Economists call this the network effect, and there's even a law, Metcalfe's Law, which posits that the value of a network increases by the square of the number of people connected in it.

It's as relevant in the context of decisions to manufacture as it is to networks of consumers. Cautious manufacturers are more likely to invest if they see a strong cross-industry brand emerging that offers clearly defined standards and guarantees that all certified products will work with one another - interoperability, in the jargon.

The US telecommunications industry's failure to adopt standards for mobile phones caused a patchwork system, with phones unlikely to work in different cities, even in the same state. This held back take-up of the technology and ultimately the entire industry in the US, allowing European companies to steal a march. But US companies are making up for lost time in this sector of the wireless market.

Apple, for example, was far ahead of the game with its 'Airport' technology, released last year. It allows a network to be formed by both Apple Macs and PCs, no mean feat in itself, but achieved without the fiddly tangle of wires. All that is required, as with WiFi solutions, is a central hub with a fast connection to the internet, and special receiver cards in computers that need to stay within 300 metres of the hub. Small firms or households then have a fully functioning network of up to 30 computers enabling shared internet connections, files, programmes and printers, connected only by radio waves.

Apple, in particular, has targeted Airport at its traditional education base. Instead of schools having a separate computer room, the plan is that a trolley of computers will come to whichever class they are required by. At the click of a mouse an instant network with printing facilities would be available.

WiFi's theoretical band width - the amount of data that can be transferred at any one time - is 11 megabits, slightly greater than conventional corporate local area networks, and the technology is already working well. The initiative is backed by giants such as Cisco, Toshiba, Dell, Sony and Lucent.

Early converts boast of their ability to pick up a laptop and move into the garden or go upstairs without having to unplug or reconnect a computer to a wire. However, there is more to this than being able to surf the net while ambling around the office.

The attentions of Cisco Systems, the US tech giant, is a sure sign of this. It has just completed a $295 million acquisition of Radiata, an Australian company that is developing wireless networks running at 54 megabits. The cost of the current WiFi technology is also falling fast, making it competitive and in some cases cheaper than using wires and 'Ethernet' technology. A central hub can be picked up for about 300 and laptop receiver cards for 150, though increasingly manufacturers are building the technology into laptops as standard.

Toshiba, a leading manufacturer of portable computers, plans to do this. 'We think of our laptop computers at the centre of a world of connectivity,' says Steve Medina, a Toshiba director.

'At home you can share a connection with your children's computer, once out of range it will automatically synchronise with your Bluetooth mobile phone, and when you enter the office it will switch over to the office network - all without you noticing.' WiFi will also be fitted in 'high-loiter retail-environments' (where people tend to hang about) such as airport lounges and even coffee shops, allowing people to surf the net or check email free.

All of which sounds very convenient, but will it be critical to businesses?

The technology is targeted at workers in the so-called 'Soho' market - small office/home office. There is an untapped market of small businesses with neither the time nor the expertise to set up complex wired networks, or the inclination to lay wires.

In large corporates, the technology is embedded into new concepts of management, flexible working and office design. A world where knowledge needs to be shared, creative juices flow and office space be used efficiently requires the ability to hop from desk to desk or between teams while retaining access to normal computing tools.

But there are worries. WiFi operates in slivers of the radio spectrum that are regulated but unlicensed. A number of low-power radio-based wireless solutions, including Bluetooth, operate at this frequency. There are fears that there may be interference between the two technologies, or indeed that Bluetooth will be rendered obsolete.

'There is some overlap in their functions, but I believe the two technologies will coexist,' says Medina, who is involved in both WiFi and Bluetooth. A more worrying question, says Medina, is: 'Can people sit in my parking lot and hack into my computer?' Wires may be a pain, but they are far easier to secure than thin air.