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802.11: The New WAP?

LR Mobile Column
LR Mobile Column
LR Mobile Column
4/28/2003

Have you seen the television advertising campaign for Intel Corp.'s (Nasdaq: INTC) new Centrino 802.11b wireless LAN chipset?

The ads feature shots of well-groomed executives casually sitting down with their laptops in the middle of a football field or on a beach to indulge in a little Web surfing or to check their mail.

All-in-all, its a nice little bit of advertising fantasy -- backed with a $300 million budget -- but, truth is, those of us who use wireless LAN regularly know it's just not that easy to get connected. In fact, you can spend much more time searching for a connection than it takes to actually download your email (and that's once you eventually get lucky and find a friendly hotspot in a café or hotel lobby). And I'm talking about the experience of using WLAN in New York City here. Residents of a town like, say, Rough and Ready, Pa., may find their 802.11 experience somewhat less productive [ed. note: you shore got a purty laptop].

Now you might not see the harm in exaggerating the capabilities of wireless LAN a little. After all, truth and advertising are like oil and water: they don't mix.

Call me a cynic [ed. note: you're a cynic] but I do see the harm, because I remember WAP and the damage overhyping that technology did to public perception of the industry.

Ah yes, the wireless access protocol, an innocuous little technology designed to enable phone users to access pages of simple, text-based information on their phone. You know, useful stuff, like what the weather is like in the town you happen to be driving to, or just how badly your company's stock has tanked.

But then the carriers started to advertise this new technology, and WAP became the Internet on your phone. Overblown ad campaigns showed users liberated from their PCs because they could now get the Web on the go and were free to play golf or something equally edifying.

Then the public actually got their hands on WAP phones.

The reality of the "wireless Web" was a crashing disappointment. Tiny green screens and slow network connections do not a pleasant Web surfing experience make. The gap between the hype and reality with WAP left many consumers feeling sour about their wireless data experience before the market had even really started. "WAP is crap!" became a rallying cry (at least in my office) as industry commentators went into full backlash mode.

Yet, just a few years later, Intel seems determined to repeat the WAP mistakes with its Centrino ads.

The vision promoted by Intel for 802.11 through its latest campaign is one that belongs to some kind of WLAN future perfect (see WLAN: The Quiet Bubble? for some of the reasons you're unlikely to be wirelessly surfing at the beach anytime soon), not our present-day reality.

Today, WLAN is a technology with virtually no coverage -- compared to cellular networks -- that is beset by security, management, and billing concerns. And Intel's first homegrown 802.11 chipset only supports the older b flavor (11-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz), not the newer a (54-Mbit/s over 5GHz) or g (54-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) variants.

New laptop users sold on the promise of anywhere/anytime Internet access and the power of the Intel brand are likely to be in for a rude awakening when they sit down and turn on their laptops and try to get connected.

And that would be a shame, because Intel's entry into the wireless LAN market and the massive amount of money the chipmaker is prepared to throw at marketing Centrino is an indication that -- handled right -- wireless LAN has a real future beyond the niche environs of a few wireless "warchalkers" and bearded hobbyists in mainstream enterprise and consumer markets.

But there is a very real danger that setting expectations for 802.11 too high, too soon, could turn off users expecting the moon from this new technology. Better to educate them about what wireless LAN can do, rather than promising what it can't possibly deliver. Scaling back expectations now may pay dividends in the future.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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