Hitting the Books: The thirty-year quest to make WiFi a connectivity actuality

The fashionable world of shopper tech would not exist as we all know it if not for the near-ubiquitous connectivity that Wi-Fi web offers. It serves because the wi-fi hyperlink bridging our cell units and good dwelling home equipment, enabling our streaming leisure and connecting us to the worldwide web. 

In his new e-book, Beyond Everywhere: How Wi-Fi Became the World’s Most Beloved Technology, Greg Ennis, who co-authored the proposal that turned the technical foundation for WiFi expertise earlier than founding the Wi-Fi Alliance and serving as its VP of Expertise for 1 / 4 century, guides readers on the fascinating (and generally irritating) genesis of this now on a regular basis expertise. Within the excerpt beneath, Ennis recounts the harrowing ultimate days of pitching and displays earlier than finally convincing the IEEE 802.11 Wi-fi LAN requirements committee to undertake their candidate protocol in addition to study the skin affect that Bob Metcalf — inventor of each Ethernet, the usual, and 3Com, the tech firm — had on Wi-Fi’s eventual emergence.

Publish Hill Press

Excerpted from Beyond Everywhere: How Wi-Fi Became the World’s Most Beloved Technology (c) 2023 by Greg Ennis. Revealed by Publish Hill Press. Used with permission.

With our DFWMAC basis now chosen, the work for the IEEE committee calmed down right into a deliberate course of for approving the precise textual content language for the usual. There have been nonetheless some huge gaps that wanted to be stuffed in—most necessary being an encryption scheme—however the committee settled right into a routine of growing draft variations of the MAC sections of the last word normal doc. On the January 1994 assembly in San Jose, I used to be chosen to be Technical Editor of your entire (MAC+PHY) normal together with Bob O’Hara, and the 2 of us would proceed to function editors by way of the primary publication of the ultimate normal in 1997. 

The primary draft of the MAC sections was principally our DFWMAC specification reformatted into the IEEE template. The event of the textual content was a well-established course of inside IEEE requirements committees: as Bob and I’d full a draft, the members of the committee would submit feedback, and on the subsequent assembly, there could be debates and choices on enhancements to the textual content. There have been adjustments made to the packet codecs, and detailed algorithmic language was developed for the operations of the protocol, however by and huge, the conceptual framework of DFWMAC was left intact. In truth, almost thirty years after DFWMAC was first proposed, its core concepts proceed to kind the inspiration for Wi-Fi.

 Whereas this text-finalization course of was occurring, the expertise refused to face nonetheless. Advances in each radio communications concept and circuit design meant that greater speeds is perhaps attainable past the 2-megabit most within the draft normal. Many firms throughout the trade have been beginning to have a look at greater speeds even earlier than the unique normal was lastly formally adopted in 1997. Reaching a velocity larger than 10 megabits — comparable to straightforward Ethernet — had turn out to be the wi-fi LAN trade’s Holy Grail. The problem was to do that whereas staying throughout the FCC’s necessities — one thing that might require each science and artwork. 

Sooner is all the time higher, in fact, however what was driving the push for 10 megabits? What wi-fi purposes have been actually going to require 10-megabit speeds? The dominant purposes for wi-fi LANs within the Nineteen Nineties have been the so-called “verticals” — for instance, Image’s installations that concerned handheld barcode scanners for stock administration. Such specialised wi-fi networks have been put in by vertically built-in system suppliers providing an entire service package deal, together with {hardware}, software program, purposes, coaching, and help, therefore the “vertical” nomenclature. Whereas 10-megabit speeds could be good for these vertical purposes, it in all probability wasn’t crucial, and if the associated fee have been to go up, such speeds wouldn’t be justifiable. So as a substitute, it might be the so-called “horizontal” market — wi-fi connectivity for normal goal computer systems — that drove this want for velocity. Particularly, the predominantly Ethernet-based workplace automation market, with PCs related to shared printers and file servers, was seen as requiring quicker speeds than the IEEE normal’s 2 megabits.

Bob Metcalfe is known within the pc trade for 3 issues: Ethernet, Metcalfe’s Regulation, and 3Com. He co-invented Ethernet; that’s easy sufficient and could be grounds for his fame all by itself. Metcalfe’s Regulation— which, in fact, is just not really a legislation of physics however nonetheless appears to have actual explanatory energy— states that the worth of a communication expertise is proportional to the sq. of the variety of related units. This intuitively believable “legislation” explains the viral snowball impact that may end result from the rising reputation of a community expertise. However it might be Metcalfe’s 3Com that enters into our Wi-Fi story at this second. 

Metcalfe invented Ethernet whereas working at PARC, the Xerox Palo Alto Analysis Heart. PARC performed a key function in growing a lot of crucial applied sciences of in the present day, together with window-based graphic pc interfaces and laser printing, along with Ethernet. However Xerox is known for “Fumbling the Future,” additionally the title of a 1999 e-book documenting how “Xerox invented, then ignored, the primary private pc,” for the reason that improvements developed at PARC usually ended up being commercialized not by Xerox however by Apple and others. Not surprisingly, Metcalfe determined he wanted a special firm to take his Ethernet invention to the market, and in 1979, he shaped 3Com with some companions.

This was the identical 12 months I joined Sytek, which had been based simply a few months prior. Like 3Com, Sytek centered on LAN merchandise, though primarily based on broadband cable tv expertise in distinction to 3Com’s Ethernet. However whereas Sytek focused on {hardware}, 3Com determined to additionally develop their very own software program supporting new LAN-based workplace purposes for shared PC entry to knowledge information and printers. With these software program merchandise together with their Ethernet expertise, 3Com turned a dominant participant within the booming workplace automation market throughout the nineties that adopted the introduction of non-public computer systems. Bob Metcalfe was famously skeptical about wi-fi LANs. Within the August 16, 1993, situation of InfoWorld, he wrote up his opinion in a chunk entitled “Wi-fi computing will flop — completely”:

This isn’t to say there received’t be any wi-fi computing. Wi-fi cell computer systems will finally be as frequent as in the present day’s pipeless cell loos. Porta-potties are discovered on planes and boats, on development websites, at rock concert events, and different locations the place it is rather inconvenient to run pipes. However loos are nonetheless predominantly plumbed. For kind of the identical causes, computer systems will keep wired.

Was his comparability of wi-fi to porta-potties simply bitter grapes? In spite of everything, that is coming from the inventor of Ethernet, the very archetype of a wired community. In any occasion, we have been lucky that Metcalfe was now not concerned with 3Com administration in 1996 — as a result of 3Com now enters our story as a significant catalyst for the event of Wi-Fi. 

3Com’s technique for wi-fi LANs was naturally a topic of nice curiosity, as no matter route they determined to take was going to be a big issue available in the market. Because the premier Ethernet firm with a buyer base that was accustomed to 10-megabit speeds, it was clear that they wouldn’t take any steps except the wi-fi speeds elevated past the two megabits of the draft IEEE normal. However would possibly they resolve to remain out of wi-fi fully, like Bob Metcalfe counselled, to concentrate on their sturdy market place with wired Ethernet? And in the event that they did resolve to hitch the wi-fi world, would they develop their very own expertise to perform this? Or would they companion with an present wi-fi developer? The duty of navigating 3Com by way of this twisted path would fall to a disarmingly boyish enterprise growth whiz named Jeff Abramowitz, who approached me one afternoon fairly unexpectedly. 

Jeff tapped me on the shoulder at an IEEE assembly. “Hey, Greg, can I speak with you for a sec?” he whispered, and we each snuck quietly out of the assembly room. “Simply questioning in case you have any time out there to tackle a brand new challenge.” He didn’t even give me an opportunity to reply earlier than persevering with with a smile: “10 megabits. Wi-fi Ethernet.” The concept of working with the foremost Ethernet firm on a high-speed model of 802.11 clearly enticed me, and I rapidly stated, “Let’s get collectively subsequent week.”

He advised me that they’d already made some progress in direction of an internally developed implementation, however that in his opinion, it was extra promising for them to companion with one of many main energetic gamers. 3Com wished to obtain an entire system of  wi-fi LAN merchandise that they may provide to their buyer base, comprising entry factors and plug-in adapters (“shopper units”) for each laptops and desktops. There would should be a Request for Proposal developed, which might, in fact, embrace each technical and enterprise necessities, and Jeff appeared to me to assist formulate the technical necessities. The potential companions included Image, Lucent, Aironet, InTalk, and Harris Semiconductor, amongst others, and our first process was to develop this RFP to ship out to those firms. 

Image ought to want no introduction, having been my shopper and having performed a significant function within the growth of the DFWMAC protocol that was chosen as the inspiration for the 802.11 normal. Lucent could sound like a brand new participant, however in truth, that is merely our NCR Dutch colleagues from Utrecht — together with Wim, Cees, Vic, and Bruce — underneath a brand new company identify, NCR having been first purchased by AT&T after which spun off into Lucent. Aironet is equally an previous pal underneath a brand new identify — again firstly of our story, we noticed that the very first wi-fi LAN product authorised by the FCC was from a Canadian firm known as Telesystems, which finally was merged into Telxon, with Aironet then being the results of a 1994 spinoff specializing in the wi-fi LAN enterprise. And in one other signal of the small-world nature of the wi-fi LAN trade at the moment, my DFWMAC co-author, Phil Belanger, had moved from Xircom to Aironet in early 1996. 

The 2 firms right here who’re really new to our story are InTalk and Harris. InTalk was a small startup based in 1996 in Cambridge, England (after which subsequently acquired by Nokia), whose engineers have been important contributors to the event of the ultimate textual content throughout the 802.11 normal. Harris Company was a significant protection contractor headquartered in Melbourne, Florida, who leveraged their radio system design expertise into an early wi-fi LAN chip growth challenge. Since they have been centered on being a chip provider somewhat than an gear producer, we didn’t count on them to submit their very own proposal, but it surely was possible that different responders would incorporate their chips, so we actually considered them as an necessary participant. 

Over the primary couple of months in 1997, Jeff and I labored up a Request for Proposal for 3Com to ship out, together with a 3Com engineer named David Fisher, and by March we have been capable of present the ultimate model to varied candidate companions. Given 3Com’s place within the normal LAN market, the extent of curiosity was excessive, and we certainly received a superb set of proposals again from the businesses we anticipated, together with Image, Lucent, InTalk, and Aironet. These firms, together with Harris, rapidly turned our focus, and we started a means of intense engagement with all of them over the following a number of months, constructing relationships within the course of {that a} 12 months later would finally result in the formation of the Wi-Fi Alliance. 

Bob Metcalfe’s wi-fi skepticism had been soundly rejected by the very firm he based, with 3Com as a substitute adopting the mantle of wi-fi evangelism. And Wi-fi Ethernet, quickly to be christened Wi-Fi, was destined to outshine its wired LAN ancestor.

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