With Vivato ceasing operations yesterday, it's high time to look at three wireless data firms hailed as having revolutionary technology around the same time: My colleague John Markoff at The New York Times wrote three stories on the future of wireless technology in 2002 and 2003 that shaped the way the business community viewed the future of wireless data at home and for business use. Each story focused on one company and its context in the larger world of Wi-Fi and broadband wireless.
The first piece was in June 2002, on Etherlinx, a firm that claimed to have created a combination WLAN (wireless local area network) and broadband point-to-point router using SDR (software-defined radio), off-the-shelf equipment, and a modified version of the Wi-Fi protocol.
The second article appeared in Nov. 2002 about Vivato, which introduced multiple-antenna technology that would allow entire floors of buildings or large and distant outdoor spaces to be lit up with much greater ease than anything that existed at the time. Separately steered "beams" of Wi-Fi could be managed with separate characteristics--switched, in fact.
The third feature in Aug. 2003 focused on Airgo, which had developed chips based on MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out) technology. They claimed that through the use of spatial multiplexing and better use of antennas they could extend Wi-Fi's range and speed.
Let's look at whether the technology these firms represented have turned into marketplace ideas. (I come not to bury Markoff, but to vindicate him...)
Etherlinx: WiMax and preceding broadband wireless standards use non-Wi-Fi technology for final-mile, point-to-multi-point connections at high speeds. This technology preceded Etherlinx, and was still very expensive at the time their coverage appeared in 2002.
Many companies now make equipment that could ultimately serve residential customers through inexpensive home gateway (customer premises equipment or CPEs). Some of the CPEs may ultimately have two radios: one for WiMax or mesh Wi-Fi reception; the other to create a local WLAN. Two radios allow coordination of channels.
Etherlinx's Web site hasn't been updated since about 2003. The last I heard from anyone at the company, they were trying to get details changed in long-ago published stories about the company related to staff.
Vivato: Smart antennas reach further. Multiple antennas produce spatial separation for increasing throughput in the same amount of spectrum. Switched WLANs produce better management control with less fuss. All of these ideas--some of which preceded Vivato--are thriving. Beamforming and spatial multiplexing using multiple antennas is the basis of 802.11n and is found in dozens of consumer gateways. Switched WLAN architecture--using access points that are coordinated centrally--has replaced using centralized equipment that relied on beams, but the switched nature has persisted.
Vivato ceased operations yesterday.
Airgo: Airgo just released its third-generation MIMO chips which have a raw maximum rate of 240 Mbps, which translates to over 100 Mbps of real throughput, exceeding widely available wired Ethernet for the first time. (The trick is dynamically expanding to use 40 megahertz of spectrum, or the equivalent of two Wi-Fi channels, along with two spatially separated data streams: this is roughly four times Wi-Fi's capacity of 20 MHz and one data stream.)
Airgo has been vindicated in the marketplace, although it's still a startup company fighting for its business among giant chipmakers and scrappy, but older chipmakers. It's holding its own through constant innovation. The incorporation of MIMO as a significant element of 802.11n through proposals that may cut Airgo out of the negotiation process may give an edge next year to other manufacturers.
Scorecard: The technology Markoff wrote about over this two-year period represented fundamental changes in the broadband and networking market, and all the ideas contained within the products--whether they originated them or were preceded by similar ideas or products--have come to market as significant forces that will dominate the industries in which they're deployed.