The Split and Sprint of Wi-Fi

PHOTO: An employee demonstrates an Apple Inc. iPad 2 during a news conference at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City on Jan. 19, 2012.
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Despite the success of Wi-Fi in the corporate market, many doubted that Wi-Fi would be a viable consumer technology a decade ago. In fact, Wi-Fi was locked in a competitive struggle with a rival standard dubbed HomeRF, backed by PC giant Intel. However, the tide started turning as a result of the collaboration between Apple and Lucent that produced the first Wi-Fi card for Apple notebooks. Dubbed AirPort, the expansion card debuted in 1999 for the bulbous, lacquered iBook of the era, and Intel later followed suit by integrating Wi-Fi into Windows PCs via a chipset called Centrino.

Now, Wi-Fi is not only part of every laptop, tablet, and smartphone, but it is becoming more popular in TVs, Blu-ray players, and printers. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, camera and camcorder makers made their biggest Wi-Fi push yet, with Samsung introducing a slew of Wi-Fi imaging products, Kodak showing off its M750 Wi-Fi camera, and Sony showing the Bloggie Live Wi-Fi camcorder. Seagate ships a hard drive called the GoFlex Satellite that can stream movies to up to three devices using Wi-Fi. And HP is even shipping a mouse that uses Wi-Fi.

Through its history, Wi-Fi has often grown out in divergent paths. For example, the second version of Wi-Fi split off into two bands -- one called 802.11g that worked well with the first version and another called 802.11a that was less likely to encounter interference and slowdowns. This dual path continued with the third generation of Wi-Fi, called 802.11n that worked with two different kinds of radio waves. Over time, though, makers of networking equipment have created products that support nearly all of the variations.

By 2013, two new upgrades to Wi-Fi will hit the market and they again take different approaches, but this time, the differences are more profound. One evolution, called 802.11ac, effectively doubles the range of today's 802.11n products while keeping the same "whole home" range. The other, 802.11ad, works over a shorter-range, say, a room, but has the potential for far greater speeds.

It is 802.11ad that will open up new applications for Wi-Fi. For example, today there are several products that can send a video from a PC up to a television over Wi-Fi, but many struggle to do so with good quality, but an 802.11ad connection can support multiple HD movies. It also can allow for super-fast file transfers between PCs or backing up a hard drive wirelessly. As we move to an age of super-thin notebook computers that dispense with traditional connections, 802.11ad can enable wireless docking stations that bridge out to connections such as USB, Ethernet, and a video output connector while allowing you to freely move your laptop around a room.

Because 802.11ad products will be available before 802.11ac products, we will likely see products that can send data very quickly over short distances but that are bound to today's speeds for longer ones. Over time, though, the two next-generation flavors of Wi-Fi will come together, allowing us to share media around our homes wirelessly faster than ever before.

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