But who gets served in the 802.11n race?

April 25, 2006

3 Min Read
You Say 'MIMO,' I Say  'Cook Book'

I have never been a fan of technology-driven trends, or improvements in product design made for no other reasons than to come out with yet another product in search of an as yet undefined market.

I guess this is why I would much rather see Detroit make a car that tops out at 90 or 100 miles/hour on the speedometer in favor of a gas engine that offers better mileage and costs less to drive. And please, don’t get me started on that whole hybrid car sales scam!

It is also why I am a bit skeptical about this whole MIMO 802.11n technology, which is just now showing its face in new products fromNetgear, LinkSys, and all the other usual retail suspects. The technology basically uses multiple antennae and multiple input-output technology (hence the name, whether you say My-Mo or you say Me-Mo) to improve performance, offer up to triple the range and communications speeds of 100 Mbit/s or even more.

While the MIMO crowd is promoting these hot new devices as high-speed conduits to zap multimedia content and even television broadcasting from device-to-device around a home or office, we all know that most people will view the technology and the slew of new systems surrounding it as a replacement for 802.11a/b/g wireless systems.

Sure, it costs three times as much, and it's relatively untested in the real world, just look at how Star Trekky those new routers look on my bookshelf! Why, they’re MIMO-rific!

(Don’t laugh at this reason for buying these things, either. There is a very well-known and respected advertising agency in Boston that deliberately installed WiFi routers in full sight and all their flashing glory just because they think it will show clients how hip and happening their agency is compared to the others.)

I expect a lot of people will run out this weekend and scour the Best Buys and CompUSA’s of the world to be the fist on their block to use MIMO to expand their bubble of wireless connectivity through the walls and right down the block.

The dirty secret about MIMO is that the jury is still out in terms of compatibility with existing wireless networks. Sure, the vendors will tell you they have tested these issues in the lab and theoretically there should not be a problem. After all, they would never ask you to completely scrap your current systems in favor of a questionable new generation.

These are the same vendors who introduced 802.11g products years ago, which are quite wonderful -- unless, of course, you have someone using an 802.11b device on the same network -- in which case the entire system defaults to that technology.

And let’s go back to the topic of speed and how people will really be using 802.11n systems. Most will connect them to DSL or cable broadband networks, at least on the consumer side, which means no matter how fast you get from your notebook to the router things will slow down considerably when you hit the last-mile wall. This is especially true of less expensive DSL systems, which offer a maximum download speed of about 786K b/sec on a very, very good day.

OK, truth be told I may eventually take the plunge and buy an 802.11n system to replace by aging -- but functional -- 802.11b/g network. I am not a complete techno-snob! But, as of now, all this hype reminds me of that classic Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man", where aliens come to Earth and give us all these neat new tech toys like security fences and anti-war satellites. Just like in that episode, it’s important to remember that despite all the smiles and technical fluff, MIMO just may be a cookbook and unsuspecting consumers the main course.

— Tim Scannell is Founder of Shoreline Research . Special to Unstrung

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