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April 4, 2008

Seven Years of Wi-Fi Networking News

It's hard for me to believe this, but Wi-Fi Networking News is seven years old on Sunday, 6 April 2008: Folks, there are times when I feel a little bit aged. Turning 40 a couple weeks ago didn't give me that feeling. Have two children (1 and 3 2/3) has a bit (mostly when I'm achey from too much carrying and too little sleep). But finding that my "other child," Wi-Fi Networking News is a grand spanking seven years old has, in fact, made me stoop just a little bit.

I started Wi-Fi Networking News under the less euphonious name 802.11b Networking News back in April 2001 after spending months researching what became a front-cover article in Circuits, the then-separate tech section of The New York Times. The first post is still live, as are all the nearly 4,800 others.

(I had help: Nancy Gohring wrote part-time for WNN for a couple years when we had a bit more traffic; she took a full-time job for and still works for IDG News Service, which I am now slightly affiliated with through my new hardware regular blog at PC World.)

Original Site Design
The site as it appeared in April 2001

That first article for the Times left a lot of research unused. I flowed some of it into the first weeks of the 802.11b-later-Wi-Fi site. I discovered there was generally no shortage of news about wireless data, which in those early days included HomeRF and then early flavors of Bluetooth. HomeRF hit the dust, and Bluetooth evolved into a complement to Wi-Fi.

Since starting, I've covered extensively the growth of the hotspot market, the rise and fall and rise again of municipal networks, the change in consumer equipment from expensive and slow to cheap and fast, the growth of the enterprise market, the phoenix-like in-flight calling/broadband market, and, more recently, cellular and WiMax technology.

Enterprise coverage was once a central part of Wi-Fi Networking News, but it became clear a few years ago that as equipment was redesigned to be integral to the enterprise, that my ability cover and test gear was too limited, and the need for true enterprise experience was necessary to write about it. This disappointed a lot of enterprise readers and equipment makers who wanted me to keep writing about corporate hardware.

The focus over the last few years on municipal Wi-Fi was not just necessary--few people besides me were covering it in depth--but also represented the only significant news in the Wi-Fi world outside of the development of 802.11n/Draft N gear. It's only recently that WiMax, cellular data, spectrum auctions, and in-flight broadband have picked back up to become stories that you all want to know about--because they've become real technology you might work with. As the city-wide Wi-Fi arc played itself out, I'm covering it less because there's less of interest; it's going to become routine and the province of city CTOs and CIOs.

While writing this site, I try to have opinions, but not an agenda. I try to keep an open mind, though I do descend into cynicism, often well founded, but perhaps too readily employed. I'll try my best to keep myself honest and cheery in the years to come.

The biggest trends I expect to see develop in 2008 to 2010 are in these key areas:

Appliances. I expected 2007 to be the year that Wi-Fi was in everything: cameras, games, phones, and tchotchkes. Instead, Wi-Fi has only gradually spread, with a few gaming consoles, and many handsets and smartphones gaining or extending their use. It may be that I missed a trend: cameras in phones may become so good by 2009, that we don't need a camera with Wi-Fi at all (Wired reports today on several 5 megapixel cameraphones shown at CTIA this week). It's also likely that if WiMax gets a foothold, we'll get handhelds probably in 2009 that sport high-speed connections for all kinds of high-bandwidth purposes, like live uploading of streaming video.

Video over wireless. I look at this category as not just another instance of broadcast, like Qualcomm's MediaFLO which is really TV to the cell phone; rather, we'll see ways in which Wi-Fi, WiMax, and cellular data are used to push stored and streaming media to all sorts of devices. I look to Starbucks, Apple, and AT&T to lead the way on cached media in stores that can be filled up at local network speeds: download a full-length, HD movie in a few minutes in a Starbucks from the iTunes cache rather than 3 hours at home.

Radio over Wi-Fi. Internet radio via Wi-Fi music players seems like a trend--buying a boombox you can tune in wherever you are, or using a handheld MP3 players--but even with many devices, I don't feel a sense that it's caught on quite yet. If Apple puts Internet radio over Wi-Fi into new iPhone/iPod touch firmware, it'll likely take off; Nokia allows a third-party program for its N series for Internet radio over Wi-Fi already.

Cellular data/mobile broadband. I admit to being wrong about the potential of cell data, due to the overhype from the carriers and the horrible pricing relative to throughput and availability of the 1xRTT and GPRS systems. As cell data networks have matured into true broadband--slow, but broadband--media, the hype has lessened, disclosure has improved (no more "unlimited" usage, eh?), and the value has increased. We'll see more of the same with faster flavors of GSM networking and WiMax's deployment. The networks will become faster and cheaper and less restrictive.

For a good sense of what people are still reading on Wi-Fi Networking News, here are the titles of the top 10 articles since I switched to Google Analytics in Sept. 2006:

  • Change Your Linksys WRT54G Admin Password Right Now!
  • WPA Cracking Proof of Concept Available
  • Weakness in Passphrase Choice in WPA Interface
  • Most Wireless Speakers Don't Live Up to Goal
  • Best Wi-Fi Signal Finder Yet
  • Linksys Latest Models: Your Experience?
  • T-Mobile Loses Starbucks; AT&T Becomes Wi-Fi Hotspot Giant
  • Editorial: Don't Buy Draft N
  • WPA for Free under Windows 2000
  • The L in Linksys WRT54GL Stands for Linux

A few observations. Security remains key in people's minds: Security articles from 2004 are still being heavily viewed in 2008. Linksys is definitely high in people's minds for particular problems: Change the default password, buy a Linux (not VxWorks) embedded router, report problems with various models. Oddly, the wireless speakers and wireless printers articles are short stubs that are pure blog: they link to longer articles elsewhere. The Best Wi-Fi Signal Finder Yet story is 4 years old and still gets 1,000 page views a month. The invisible hand--nay, the long tail!--works in archives as it does everywhere.

Will I still be pounding away 7 years from now on this site? That seems about as unlikely as the last 7 years, which means it will probably happen. Traffic has dropped off over the years from the time in which Wi-Fi was a great (and expensive) mystery to today when there's more information and less confusion about it. As long as there are any questions to be answered, I'll keep writing.