We all love Wi-Fi, except when we can’t connect. We take for granted being able to have wireless access at home and the office, on airplanes, in cafés around the globe, and if we’d be so lucky, floating on the International Space Station.
But what if Wi-Fi hadn’t happened? It almost didn’t, at least not in the way we recognize it today.
Wi-Fi officially launched 20 years ago, on September 15, 1999. You may be imagining a flashy launch event featuring Christina Aguilera (“The wireless genie is out of the bottle!”), or a breathless headline that booted the feared Y2K bug from the front pages. Instead, imagine eight technophiles in an Atlanta Convention Center briefing room waiting to “Superman” their jackets to expose polo shirts bearing the made-up word Wi-Fi before a crowd of 60.
There was no lack of enthusiasm in that room; 17 tech companies big and small had committed to back Wi-Fi, including Apple, Dell, and Nokia. But even the most fervent evangelists (myself included) never imagined the kind of global economic, social, and cultural impact Wi-Fi would have.
By early summer 1999, the wireless world resembled the Wild West. Businesses had largely adopted Ethernet wired networking, which connected desktop computers in “local area networks” at 10 megabits per second. Consumers, meanwhile, were sending emails from home to the squealing and squawking sounds of the latest 56 Kbps dial-up modems. Products for wireless local area networking, or WLAN, did exist, primarily for businesses, but a multitude of companies offered proprietary solutions that risked rapidly becoming obsolete. The solutions considered an official standard were based on an initial specification known as IEEE 802.11 (the wireless networking group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). These wireless products were five times slower than their wired counterparts and also were expensive. In addition, there were different ways to interpret the specification. One vendor could build “standards-compliant” products that weren’t fully compatible with “standards-compliant” products from another. These weaknesses in the international specification led companies to support rival technology consortia, each aiming to become a de facto standard.
HomeRF was the biggest and most visible WLAN consortium at the time. The specification was developed by the group of Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft; it targeted the consumer market, and was backed by more than 80 other companies. Unlike 802.11 products, HomeRF products communicated with each other, and were considerably cheaper. HomeRF (short for home radio frequency) also had a catchier name than IEEE 802.11, and it had lofty plans for higher speeds and expansion into the business market.
Meanwhile, the second generation of the IEEE standard, 802.11b, was expected to get final approval at the end of September. The company 3Com, then a leading networking firm (both 3Com and Compaq were acquired by HP), had developed products based on this new and faster standard that were slated to ship toward the end of 1999. With the clock ticking, 3Com brought five strong IEEE advocates together to found an independent Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, or WECA, which aimed to ensure that products based on the pending standard would work together. The name “FlankSpeed” was proposed, but they ultimately trademarked the name “Wi-Fi”—a riff on “hi-fi,” or high-fidelity from the era of home stereos—and established the rules by which devices could become “Wi-Fi Certified.”
We all know Wi-Fi won, but there are many ways in which Wi-Fi might not have become ubiquitous, and instead HomeRF remained a competing standard. For one, IEEE 802.11b could have been delayed, which nearly occurred save for a brilliant compromise between two WLAN industry pioneers and foes, Lucent Technologies and Harris Semiconductor. Instead, let’s hypothesize a second scenario where WECA chose to focus on just business connectivity (which was also discussed), not “go-anywhere” connectivity, and “FlankSpeed” was chosen over “Wi-Fi.”
In a FlankSpeed world, workers would have used FlankSpeed at the office and HomeRF at home. It would be more difficult to bring work home with you. Which technology would you look for in a coffee shop or at the airport? Maybe neither. Wait, no public access? NoHO (not home/not office) zones might become no man’s lands for connectivity. Far worse, no FlankSpeed baked into smartphones. Mobility as we know it vanishes into thin air!
Darwinian technology theorists might argue that one group would have eventually won out—a FlankSpeed flotilla might have formed. But having one standard created a singular focus on cost reductions and innovation. Neither an embattled FlankSpeed nor HomeRF could ever have been as cheap or as pervasive as Wi-Fi. The lack of a universal standard would have inhibited rollout at places like retail stores and public spaces where we’ve come to expect, and even demand access. Perhaps there would be no streaming video while waiting in line for lunch or no internet connectivity on trains and planes.
Today, crucially, families in Nigeria and other emerging market countries rely on free Wi-Fi hot spots to connect to the world, and Wi-Fi is providing critical communications support in the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. Having a universal standard continues to pay global benefits.
So how did Wi-Fi score its relatively hasty victory over HomeRF? The answer is preparation and timing. From the moment WECA certified interoperability and the name Wi-Fi was announced, companies had assurance that they could invest in the burgeoning technology and their products would all work together. Chipmakers and PC companies came off the fence quickly to support Wi-Fi, and Microsoft and Intel switched flags from HomeRF to Wi-Fi. Wireless in businesses caught fire well ahead of the home (86% of Wi-Fi devices in 2000 were for business), boosting Wi-Fi chip volume and shrinking the cost gap with HomeRF, which folded in 2003.
The Wi-Fi Alliance and IEEE have been working in tandem to steward the dynamic standard and global phenomenon for 20 years. The IEEE 802.11 committee continues churning out new standards, and the Wi-Fi Alliance, which now includes more than 800 member companies, continues filling in the gaps and ensuring products talk to each other. Wi-Fi 6, the latest version, has a maximum speed of 9 Gbps that allows feature-length HD to download in less than a minute, a feat that would have taken most of an evening on the original Wi-Fi.
Two surprise heroes of Wi-Fi were the US government (yes, the government helped!) and Apple. Not only was the Federal Communications Commission active in creating the rules that enabled Wi-Fi to exist in the first place, but it changed the rules to allow new technologies to be developed, and added frequency bands that made way for higher speeds. Apple was the first vendor to push the envelope with new Wi-Fi technology, not once, not twice, but at least three times. In Apple’s typical brand-forward fashion, when the iBook was introduced in 1999 as the first laptop with built-in Wi-Fi, they called it AirPort. Apple didn’t deign to call it Wi-Fi for years.
Fortunately, we all now call it what it is, and Wi-Fi is (almost) always there when we need it. The next time you think about cursing a dead spot or scowl when your flight attendant tells you the Wi-Fi on the plane is down, take a deep breath and be thankful that you’re not connecting with the world at FlankSpeed.
This article was written by Jeff Abramowitz and originally appeared in Wired.
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