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On the heels of Apple's commitment to 802.11n, Intel gets in the act: The timing is no coincidence. Apple and Intel have been coordinating messages, and even though Apple won't be using Intel's chips--Atheros appears to be the anointed party--Intel wanted to wait until after the IEEE task group vote last week and after CES, too. Apple jumped the gun by a few days.
Notebook partners include Acer, Asus, Gateway, and Toshiba committed at this point, with systems available at the end of January using Centrino Duo. The Santa Rosa laptop chipset platform is due in the second quarter of 2007, at which point they expect more participation.
Like Apple, Intel says five times the throughput, twice the range, but only in comparison with their previous products--no actual specs on megabits per second or feet/meters. They do note that N will provide an hour more battery life under comparable circumstances with the previous Centrino flavor. They will support 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz N channels.
The announcement includes the Connect with Centrino program, in which access point makers commit to rigorous testing with Intel to ensure interoperability. This is clever, because it will go beyond the Wi-Fi Alliance tests, which focus on wireless protocols, and include the whole ecosystem of DHCP addressing and other factors. Asus, Belkin, Buffalo, D-Link, and NetGear are all part of this first wave of branding.
Remarkably, Spectec could squeeze a Wi-Fi chipset into a phone-size card: The microSDIO (Secure Digital Input/Output) format is popular in smartphones and not-so-smart-phones because the slot size is just that much tinier. With a blowtorch and a headlamp, you can even put microSDIO into Blackberry's Pearl model. But sticking Wi-Fi in that form factor? A great technical achievement. More remarkable? It's 802.11g--G, baby!--not the slower 802.11b that's typically found in small and embedded devices. Support is noted for Windows CE 4 and 5, which encompasses Windows Mobile 5. It's only available in Europe right now (€90), according to TG Daily. [Link via PocketPC Thoughts]
GigaOm notes that the Meraki Mini will be one of the bridges that will be offered to bring Wi-Fi access indoors on the EarthLink/Google San Francisco network: Meraki is turning MIT Roofnet's technology into commercial products while retaining open-source roots. This should enable bridging a city-wide network across a local mesh. The open platform would enable some applications to reside on the router or change router settings for optimal performance. Google hasn't funded Meraki as an investor, but has contributed some dollars as a vendor.
The Lehigh University project turns commercial: The Wi-Fire is a high-gain, directional, external, USB powered-and-attached Wi-Fi adapter with Windows XP support. The idea is that this is somewhere between a high-gain PC Card or ExpressCard, which is anchored into a laptop and only works with laptops that offer a card slot, and a high-gain bridge that requires external AC power and an Ethernet port. They say they've seen 30 Mbps over 802.11g at distances where a normal adapter hit just 1 Mbps. They also claim about 1,000 feet of range, which, for this gain, is pretty reasonable via line of sight.
For $150, about the price of a bridge, you get a fairly high-gain unit. According to their numbers (15 dBm transmit power and 10.4 dBi antenna gain), it's roughly 25 dBm of effective power output (EIRP) or 350 milliwatts. The flexibility of this unit might make it a perfect match with metro-scale wireless networks. Bridges often run at 200 mW to 400 mW of transmit power with omnidirectional antennas that have relatively low gain. Wi-Fire also has high receive sensitivity at -98 dBm. The prototype could switch between omni and directional, but this approach appears entirely directional (and simpler).
Because a bridge is portable but requires line power, this is much more flexible. Combine a Wi-Fire with built-in Wi-Fi that you enable sharing on, and you have a bridge plus AP combination using two radios for best channel separation and throughput.
The folks behind this have done a great job ratcheting up from student project into a shipping product. Lehigh University has a small feature on how three students at the engineering and applied science college received a $2,000 grant in 2004 to create a prototype, assembled a team that built a project that won a $15,000 state grant to create and test 50 prototypes, which in 2006 turned into a $150,000 loan from a university incubator fund.
The company has 1,000 Wi-Fire units ready to sell, aiming at college campuses and bookstores. They plan to go into national marketing and additional products in 2007.
The firm has added a model of bridge for municipal networks that doubles as a home gateway: This was inevitable, and I was surprised that Ruckus's first metro-scale bridge, the MetroFlex, lacked this feature. The Peplink Surf 200BG-AP has a 200 mW radio that uses per-packet power control to send and receive data to remote metro-scale nodes and handle traffic in the home as well. For $189, you lose one device and avoid complexity in redistributing Wi-Fi within the home. Via email, the company told me that the 200BG-AP doesn't offer virtual SSIDs, or the ability to set up multiple Wi-Fi network identities--that's coming later--but lets the user configure the bridge to act as a client for the larger network and a gateway for the local network.
The $99 card works with handhelds: SDIO is increasingly the form factor of choice for handheld devices, whether cellphones (which sometimes opt for mini-SDIO), cameras, or PDAs. Having a Wi-Fi option for those devices that don't offer Wi-Fi built in or through their own card is extremely worthwhile, and the retail price of $99 for the Go Wi-Fi!--love that !--makes this a decent choice, even.
The Socket card uses 802.11g, the faster Wi-Fi standard in common use, although the overall throughput is highly dependent on a device's bus. Still, even if a device can only push 1 Mbps over a 54 Mbps connection, 802.11g ultimately uses less power to move the same bits and occupies a network for less of the time, improving overall throughput.
Socket claims fairly wide support, with drivers for Dell HP, and Palm devices, and Windows Mobile 2003/2003SE and 5.0. They also say that the card supports Windows CE 42/5.0 drivers for embedded devices, which could encompass a fairly large category of equipment. There's a full suite of security support--thank you, Socket--including WPA Enterprise, but it appears its lacking WPA2. This shouldn't be an issue for many customers, although some people may be required to use the stronger AES key available only in WPA2 if they work for the government, or in healthcare or the legal industry.
The system includes a Wi-Fi management program that's sold separately for $25.
Dell will offer Broadcom-based Draft N adapter as built-to-order notebook option: The "Dell Wireless 1500 draft-802.11n dual-band wireless card" will use the Intesi-fi technology that Broadcom has developed in advance of an industry-approved standard for 802.11n. Broadcom isn't alone, but I'm stunned that Dell will sign onto this at this stage. The upgrade costs $59. (Acer will ship a Q3 laptop with Draft N built in, The Register reports.)
The press release from Broadcom states, "Broadcom Intensi-fi technology complies with the current IEEE 802.11n draft specification and is available in a variety of draft-802.11n routers, including those from Linksys, NETGEAR and Buffalo." There is no way to comply with a draft specification of this sort. It's an early draft, likely to change, and there's no one outside of the firms trying to push this early Draft N gear who believes it's a good idea to write one's name in water.
The Broadcom press release also states, "Intensi-fi solutions are also interoperable with draft-802.11n technology from other chipmakers." Yeah, right. In certain testing which belies most of the magazine lab tests of the technology. What's the brand promise behind this statement? What happens if a competitors updates their firmware, and interoperability fails? This is why the Wi-Fi mark works--stable standards, independent lab testing, and the possibility of failing tests--and this kind of standards-by-marketing committee fails.
This is making me slightly ill as I see companies rush to push something out that nobody needs. Regular MIMO on the market provides the distance boost that's really at the crux. The rest of this Draft N technology could patiently wait until the standard is done.
I reiterate that no manufacturer I'm aware of is willing to promise that equipment they release today will be fully upgradable and interoperable with the final, release 802.11n specification even if they have to swap out hardware. Without that promise in place, they're selling what could turn into expensive paperweights that offer minimal functional improvements at excessive cost compared to what final, shipping, interoperable, certified products will provide in probably no more than six months.
Wait, I say, wait.
A Dell spokesperson provided a clear statement that I believe is frank and fair to my question as to whether Dell would offer upgrades if hardware were required. Dell said,
"Dell felt there was compelling value for our customers in the current draft standard, in terms of range and throughput, to justify releasing a product based on the draft.
"Although the Dell Wireless 1500 is fully compliant to the current draft and several elements of the draft will be incorporated into the final standard, Dell cannot guarantee upgradeability to the final standard. Regardless of final upgradeability, the Dell Wireless 1500 card will continue to perform at throughput rates and ranges superior to 802.11g, when paired with Draft 802.11n routers with the Intensi-fi technology, and provide customers with the ability for multiple users to use high-bandwidth wireless applications throughout the home.
"Also note, the Dell Wireless 1500 Draft 802.11n card is backwards compatible with 802.11 a/b/g wireless standards, so users will always be able to access these wireless networks no and in the future."
This is well stated. There is nothing misleading or incorrect in this response. However, I don't believe that any Dell customer should purchase what is essentially a beta or pre-release item that cannot be guaranteed upgradability. But I appreciate that Dell isn't overhyping the product.
You can always read more about 802.11n and MIMO and MIMO+N Networking News.
There's an awkward dance between access point and Wi-Fi adapters: A Wi-Fi adapter is full of 1999 and 2002 technology; Wi-Fi access points, enterprise WLAN switches, and gateways have the latest goodness. How can the industry add features to adapters that allow them to be as smart and manageable as the AP side? A new IEEE standard, of course.
802.11v will allow configuration, diagnostics, and dynamic adaptation of settings. Those will all allow enterprises to save enormous amounts of time in provisioning devices--although some end-point security tools can already handle some of this--and troubleshooting. The dynamic changes in settings would allow devices to respond to network conditions or control signals sent via an access point to an adapter.
Most importantly, perhaps, adapters could participate in load balancing among access points, eliminating kludges by WLAN vendors that push and pull adapters to the APs they want them on.
Hawking introduces USB adapter with an 8 dbi antenna: This thing looks very 1950s sci-fi retro, but produces a remarkably strong, directional signal. It has five LEDs that show signal strength, too, which should help improve directionality. It'll retail for about $70.
Now there are two approaches to reaching further with Wi-Fi: brute force and smart antennas. This is the prettiest example of brute force I've seen. But is it better than beamforming and spatial multiplexing in MIMO's finesse?
Dell already offers a/g option from Broadcom: Broadcom keeps pushing at the enterprise, and today announced they are shipping their mini-PCI 802.11a and 802.11g adapter, which, by g's nature, includes full 802.11b support. (Broadcom's chipset has been certified as full Wi-Fi for 802.11b as of a few weeks ago.)
Dell is the first of what Broadcom hopes are several manufacturers that will offer their adapter as an option, especially attractive to the enterprise. Intel won't have an a/b or a/g option until the second half of this year, by which time laptop manfacturers may be entrenched in their current option.
Broadcom pointed out to me that Dell revises its business laptops only rarely; the last time the Latitude line was revised was in 1997. Dell likes to offer a predictable product that a company can commit to as a stable, identical platform for an extended period of time in large numbers of units.
Broadcom noted that it provides a single driver to support b, g, and a/g, meaning that a single disk image for installing the operating system on a laptop can be used for whatever Broadcom adapter is included.
All of this points to Intel having a more uphill battle for wireless supremacy than predicted last year, although all the laptop makers offering Broadcom adapters also offer Intel's as a default, no-cost option. It's just that Intel's adapter isn't necessarily what the enterprise wants today.
Intel releases PRO/Wireless 2100 LAN MiniPCI Adapter as standalone component: The wireless adapter that's part of the laptop Centrino system is now available as a standalone component for integration with laptops via the mini-PCI slot. Although Centrino is described as a system, it's actually a Pentium-M processor, some support chips for various management tasks, and a mini-PCI wireless adapter.
Broadcom has already made some strides in offering its own mini-PCI 802.11g and 802.11a/g adapter to PC manufactuers. Dell offers Broadcom's option for new Latitude and Inspiron models under its TrueMobile name. HP just announced a revision to existing laptops that allows consumers to add 802.11b or g (for $50 or $70, respectively). More announcements of this kind are expected soon.
Centrino is about branding and co-marketing dollars, so as long as Dell and others offer Centrino computers -- all three elements -- they can get the marketing dollars, while still selling Pentium-M + alternative wireless laptops.