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December 15, 2005

Vivato Ceases Operations

Vivato has ceased operations according to a company spokesperson: I confirmed via a spokesperson Thursday night that early enterprise wireless switch maker Vivato has shut down. Unstrung was reporting earlier today that the buzz on the street was a Dec. 20 halt. A reliable source told me this evening that the shutdown had already occurred, and I was able to confirm it late Thursday with the company. Update: The company posted what it calls its "wind down plans" on Saturday on its home page. They will liquidate the inventory and will have a portfolio soon of intellectual property to sell off.

Vivato made news in Nov. 2002 when John Markoff filed a major business story in The New York Times about the then-revolutionary product that Vivato was slated to introduce the next year. The company's braintrust was extolled, and the firm had prototypes to show off. In the months that followed, they offered extensive demonstrations of their technology, which involved a phased-array antenna that was intended to control and receive signals intelligently, steering Wi-Fi to users and being highly receptive to distant transmitters.

The demonstration worked terrifically. A number of San Francisco-based journalists and community wireless advocates put a demonstration switch to the test and were quite honestly amazed. But in practice, the multi-thousand-dollar gateway couldn't be put into effective production.

Delays dogged the company as, according to reports I received, the units coming off the production line were incapable of achieving the expensive, handmade prototypes' characteristics. Originally, the system was billed as delivering three simultaneous steered beams across entire floors of buildings from indoor placement or entire sides of buildings from outdoor locations, but that appears to have been impossible to achieve.

I knew that Vivato might not be able to deliver because a major PR effort to broadcast Wi-Fi across Central Park quietly failed for technical reasons--it was never announced publicly and those involved didn't want to talk about it. At the same time, normally straight-talking people within the company couldn't give me a clear and frank answer as to delays in production.

The firm reportedly created an inventory of its 802.11b switches which came on the market just after 802.11g hit ratification, making them obsolete for enterprise purposes on delivery. The inventory of that first-generation device were unsellable at retail because of performance and the 802.11g issue. A number of gateways were sold off around the country to smaller firms, colleges, and institutions at bargain prices. Several colleges I've spoken with have one or two Vivato 802.11b gateways for lighting up arenas or other outdoor spaces.

An 802.11g switch took a while to produce, but it limited claims to a single steered channel when it shipped in 2004. They paired this switch with a much cheaper bridge that would fill in niches that the main device couldn't cover. Between shipping their 802.11b and 802.11g switches and thereafter, founders, key executives, and engineers left the company. The firm refocused on outdoor markets, like ports and stadiums.

As Vivato's first and later products came to market, another firm was gaining interest: Airgo. Airgo's multiple-in, multiple-out (MIMO) technology--also first reported by Markoff in the Times 10 months after his Vivato piece--would turn out to be cheaper and simpler than Vivato's approach, and, more importantly, the first generation of the chips in products shipped in late 2004 and worked as advertised.

While a single MIMO gateway can't cover an entire floor of a business, a single Vivato gateway can't serve enough users; Vivato's monolithic approach wasn't compatible with the scale of users, purposes like VoIP over Wi-Fi, and the throughput that's now demanded in enterprises. MIMO hasn't penetrated the enterprise yet, but as part of the 802.11n standard, it's the direction to invest in by company IT departments.

Simultaneous with the growing awareness of impending MIMO shipments in 2004 was the maturation of the wireless LAN switch market. WLAN switches, unlike Vivato's beam-forming antenna, could coordinate access points located throughout an enterprise. The first devices generally required a special Layer 2 switch to which the APs had to be directly connected; that difficulty was relatively quickly eliminated in most products by 2004, which then supported Layer 2 tunneling for APs to be located anywhere on a network and controlled centrally.

Cisco's acquisition of Airespace, one of the largest revenue-producing startups, marked the acceptance of that trend into the mainstream, as did Aruba landing the Microsoft contract for their main campus and worldwide offices.

Vivato's approach turned out to be the wrong one from so many angles, although aspects of the first Vivato switch have permeated the market in a more mature, cheaper, and flexible form.

You can read Wi-Fi Networking News's extensive historical coverage.

[Several links via TechDirt, which has followed Vivato closely]