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November 8, 2005

Wi-Fi Stands for...Nothing (and Everything)

A recent post on the hilarious and wonderful road show that is evoked writer Cory Doctorow's rant on "Wi-Fi stands for wireless fidelity": He pointed out, and I backed him up as did Steve Stroh, that Wi-Fi doesn't stand for wireless fidelity because that term doesn't mean anything. Wi-Fi is an arbitrary mark that sounds very nice but has no particular meaning associated. Trademarks aren't allowed to have a specific pre-existing meaning in the realm in which they're registered. Xerox might be derived from xerography, but the term or word Xerox meant nothing at all before it was trademarked.

Nonetheless, most reporters (sometimes including me), write "Wi-Fi stands for wireless fidelity" with frightening regulatory even when we would never write "Starbucks stands for Ahab's crewman" or the like.

Phil Belanger offered up his insight as one of the folks responsible for the term and an early chairman of The Wi-Fi Alliance, then known as WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance). Phil's name is on the 802.11b spec, as well. He allowed Cory and I to republish his response on this:

"Wi-Fi doesn't stand for anything. It is not an acronym. There is no meaning.

"Wi-Fi and the ying yang style logo were invented by Interbrand. We (the founding members of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, now called the Wi-Fi Alliance) hired Interbrand to come up with the name and logo that we could use for our interoperability seal and marketing efforts. We needed something that was a little catchier than 'IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence.' Interbrand created Prozac, Compaq, oneworld, Imation and many other brand names that you have heard of. They even created the company name Vivato.

"The only reason that you hear anything about 'Wireless Fidelity' is some of my colleagues in the group were afraid. They didn't understand branding or marketing. They could not imagine using the name 'Wi-Fi' without having some sort of literal explanation. So we compromised and agreed to include the tag line 'The Standard for Wireless Fidelity' along with the name. This was a mistake and only served to confuse people and dilute the brand. For the first year or so (circa 2000), this would appear in all of our communications. I still have a hat and a couple of golf shirts with the tag line. Later, when Wi-Fi was becoming more successful and we got some marketing and business people from larger companies on the board, the alliance dropped the tag-line.

"This tag line was invented after the fact. After we chose the name Wi-Fi from a list of 10 names that Interbrand proposed. The tag line was invented by the initial six member board and it does not mean anything either. If you decompose the tag line, it falls apart very quickly. 'The Standard'? The Wi-Fi Alliance has always been very careful to stay out of inventing standards. The standard of interest is IEEE 802.11. The Wi-Fi Alliance focuses on interoperability certification and branding. It does not invent standards. It does not compete with IEEE. It complements their efforts. So Wi-Fi could never be a standard. And 'Wireless Fidelity' - what does that mean? Nothing. It was a clumsy attempt to come up with two words that matched Wi and Fi. That's it.

"So we were smart to hire Interbrand to come up with the name and logo. We were dumb to confuse and water down their efforts by adding the meaningless tag line. Please help reinforce the good work that we did and forget the tag line.

"Wi-Fi does not mean anything. Wi-Fi is not an acronym. Regardless of what the AP guidelines say - the proper spelling is 'Wi-Fi' with the dash."

1 Comment

Very amusing to see how history is created around the words in our society! As the individual that managed the naming assignment and personally created the name Wi-Fi (while at Interbrand) this speculation after the fact is entertaining.

The name was the result of a very specific creative effort that sought to explore and mimic existing technology/communications terms. We reasoned that AM and FM were catchy acronyms and successful at communicating the concepts of amplitude modulation and frequency modulation respectively.

From there it was just a short leap to hi-fi, a term coined in the 60's to describe the high fidelity associated with stereo records (as opposed to mono).

The name Wi-Fi was really just a re-purposing of hi-fi. We added the the idea of wireless fidelity as a means to explain how the term could be used in marketing 802.11b. The rationale was used in the initial presentation of the name.

Wi-Fi is a great name because it is short, visually interesting and memorable. Apart from that, believe what you will. Sometimes the best names are those that capture the spirit of a complex concept in a novel and compelling manner.

That's all there was to it.

Would love to hear your feedback.

Edward Saenz