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Envara Envisions 802.11g

Startup Envara thinks it can crack the ranks of swelling 802.11g players with chip sets due to ship by June.

The company is targeting dualmode 802.11a/g as well as vanilla 802.11g. The product has begun sampling to alpha customers in Taiwan and Japan. General sampling is due next month, with volume production to hit full swing by June, the company announced yesterday.

But Envara has some catching up to do, at least on the marketing front. With 802.11g a big draw at November's Comdex tradeshow, no fewer than four chip makers were either shipping or preparing to ship: Atheros Communications, Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), Intersil Corp. (Nasdaq: ISIL), and RF Micro Devices Inc. (Nasdaq: RFMD).

Envara is an American company with headquarters in Redwood City, Calif., and R&D -- which makes up nearly all the staff right now -- in Israel. Originally known as hLAN, the company was founded three years ago to chase the HiperLAN2 standard for 5GHz wireless LANs. But that market languished, so Envara changed names in mid-2001 and devoted itself to 802.11 chips.

"We believe we'll be among the first wave of manufacturers with an 802.11g solution and the first with an a/g," says Paul Nurfluss, Envara marketing director. At least, that's what he says he's told by the Taiwanese manufacturers that are scoping out the other 802.11g hopefuls.

But given the number of established companies already in the ring, is there still room for a startup?

"There certainly could be, although Broadcom's kicking butt right now in the [pre-standard] 802.11g market," says Will Strauss, president of research firm Forward Concepts. Broadcom officials now claim they've shipped 2 million 802.11g chips since Dec. 1 -- "That's already more than the number of a chips that have ever shipped," Strauss says. Envara's hope is to compete on price, a potentially potent weapon, given the potential market among the Taiwanese OEMs that want to build inexpensive consumer products. That seems counterintuitive at first, given that Envara is developing its parts in silicon germanium (SiGe), traditionally a more expensive route than using regular silicon (CMOS).

Nurfluss points out that SiGe prices have dropped as more contract manufacturers have emerged. Moreover, he contends, CMOS processes for radios in the 5GHz band -- required for the a half of 802.11a/g -- are still relatively new and don't yield well. If that's true, it means a relatively high percentage of the devices come out defective, which nullifies some of CMOS's inherent cost advantage.

Still, Strauss notes that, even on the 802.11 trail, Envara has struggled to find its way. "They started out saying they were going to offer a single a/b chip set. The next thing I hear from them is they're going to offer only an RF front end for an a/b chip set."

That Envara switched its goal to 802.11a/g from 802.11a/b is hardly surprising, Strauss notes, because the 802.11g standard is written to be a superset of 802.11b. It creates a 54-Mbit/s service in the 2.4GHz radio band while continuing to communicate with the 802.11b equipment that proliferated so rapidly last year. The 802.11g standard won't be finalized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) until this summer at least, so technically, none of today's chips can be 802.11g-compliant. That's led to insinuations that existing products might not interoperate properly, or that they might bog down when 802.11b traffic is introduced to the network (see Interop Woes Smite 802.11g).

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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