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Wi-Fi Alliance cracks down on ‘standards-plus’ kit

Better late than never

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The Wi-Fi Alliance is rather belatedly seeking to crack down on ‘standards-plus’ products that achieve extended speed or range through proprietary add-ons, yet still claim to be fully interoperable. The Alliance has threatened to remove its certification from any product that interferes with another Wi-Fi product.

The action is intended to prevent the erosion of confidence in the certification process, which has been seen in the enterprise market as pre-standard or extended products have hit the markets. It also aims to deter vendors from engaging in prolonged claims and counterclaims over interference, such as the battle between Broadcom and Atheros over their 802.11g-plus chips last year.

Such disputes win publicity for the vendors that use the technology but also confuse the market and confirm the scepticism that businesses already have about Wi-Fi interoperability.

However, the Alliance’s action raises the wider issue of whether standards bodies and their certification authorities can retain control in a market where competition is fierce, with technology vendors always seeking differentiation through the next new feature; and where customers are genuinely demanding a rapid pace of change, rather than having it thrust upon them. In such an environment, the standards process needs to be faster and more flexible if it is not to be discredited, or hijacked by a few vendors seeking to achieve interoperability and mass markets through de facto technologies.

The dilemma has been highlighted most painfully in the IEEE battle over the UltraWideBand-based 802.15.3a proposals, but is also affecting Wi-Fi as the WLan chipmakers -race to leapfrog one another in speed and range and so attract the all-important mass market wireless vendors such as Linksys.

Too little too late?

This makes the Alliance’s threat too little too late for the consumer sector that most of the standards-plus products target. The experience of 802.11g – when Broadcom stole huge market share by launching pre-standard gear last year – showed that consumers are more interested in performance than standards. The success of Broadcom’s controversial gamble has since encouraged its rivals also to try to grab a headstart as new technologies emerge, promising products that add more and more Mbps to the basic specifications of 802.11g, and starting to hint at prestandard devices for the upcoming 802.11n (108Mbps Wi-Fi) and 802.11e (quality of service).

It is likely that consumers – though not enterprises – will buy such products for their superior performance, regardless of future compatibility, making home-oriented vendors indifferent to the Wi-Fi Alliance’s kitemarks – some already ship kit without these stamps. This is especially true in the growing digital home networks market, where quality of service and high rates will be important for video streaming.

To remove a few more teeth from the Alliance, several surveys have shown that US consumers, in particular, regard Wi-Fi as a generic term for wireless, not a certification, and that they are more aware of the Centrino brand and logo than with the term Wi-Fi – and often interchange the two.

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