Saturday, May 27, 2023

When Wi-Fi Almost Wasn’t Born

By Kanika Goswami - September 20, 2019 3 Mins Read


Just two decades ago, the internet was rare to experience in large parts of the world. And today, it is the largest part of our lives. But no, this is not a story of how the world has changed. It is a story of how it might have NOT changed!

The oral history of Wi-Fi is chronicled in the Computer History Museum, in the words of Jeff Abramowitz, the author of the IEEE 802.11/ 802.11b standards, and a founder of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The wireless technology Wi-Fi was launched twenty years ago, to a week. During a fairly dramatic launch, there were seventeen top technology companies of 1999 waiting to back the technology – including Apple, Dell, and Nokia.  No one could have imagined the impact it was to have on the daily life of humankind, at that point.

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At that point, while WLAN products existed, and the solution that was considered an official standard was called IEEE 802.11 (the wireless networking group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), but it was by no means the most efficient product line. Hence companies were pitted against each other to build a more stable networking brand. There were many in the fray, but the biggest and most visible WLAN consortium then was HomeRF. Developed by the elite group of Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft (and backed by 80 other brands), it was focused on the consumer market, is much cheaper.

About the same time, the second generation of IEEE standard, 802.11b was developed by 3Com for launch by end of 1999. It was a third brand – formed by five strong IEEE advocates, to develop an independent Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, or WECA. The name identified was “FlankSpeed” but finally, the name “Wi-Fi”, was trademarked.

In this triangular competition, it was Wi-Fi that won, but it could have just as easily not!

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Various scenarios come to mind- the IEEE 802.11b could have been delayed! It didn’t because of a timely compromise between two WLAN industry pioneers and foes, Lucent Technologies and Harris Semiconductor.

Originally, the Wi-Fi idea was to provide only business connectivity. If that had happened, an entire generation of screen-addicts would not have been living today!

If FlankSpeed had won, it would be used in offices, while HomeRF would have been used for homes- and if the twain didn’t speak- the ubiquitous connectivity we enjoy would not have happened. There would be no public access to Wi-Fi- coffee shops, airports, no smartphones- and yes- no mobility as our life support today!

It’s a scenario we cannot even envisage- but in human history, wars have been lost for want of a nail!!!!

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Kanika Goswami

Editor-in-Chief - Ondot Media With over two decades of experience as a journalist, Kanika is the mentor and guide for Ondot media’s editorial team. She has worked with global media brands like IDG (CIO magazine) and Indian media brans like Economic Times, and has specialized in Enterprise technology content for over a decade now.

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