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

The trendy 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 house home equipment, enabling our streaming leisure and connecting us to the worldwide web. 

In his new ebook, 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 know-how earlier than founding the Wi-Fi Alliance and serving as its VP of Expertise for 1 / 4 century, guides readers on the fascinating (and typically irritating) genesis of this now on a regular basis know-how. Within the excerpt beneath, Ennis recounts the harrowing remaining days of pitching and displays earlier than in the end convincing the IEEE 802.11 Wi-fi LAN requirements committee to undertake their candidate protocol in addition to look at 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. Printed 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 crammed in—most vital being an encryption scheme—however the committee settled right into a routine of growing draft variations of the MAC sections of the final word normal doc. On the January 1994 assembly in San Jose, I used to be chosen to be Technical Editor of the whole (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 might full a draft, the members of the committee would submit feedback, and on the subsequent assembly, there can be debates and selections on enhancements to the textual content. There have been modifications made to the packet codecs, and detailed algorithmic language was developed for the operations of the protocol, however by and enormous, the conceptual framework of DFWMAC was left intact. The truth is, practically thirty years after DFWMAC was first proposed, its core concepts proceed to kind the muse for Wi-Fi.

 Whereas this text-finalization course of was happening, the know-how refused to face nonetheless. Advances in each radio communications principle and circuit design meant that greater speeds is perhaps potential past the 2-megabit most within the draft normal. Many corporations throughout the business have been beginning to have a look at greater speeds even earlier than the unique normal was lastly formally adopted in 1997. Attaining a pace better than 10 megabits — comparable to straightforward Ethernet — had turn into the wi-fi LAN business’s Holy Grail. The problem was to do that whereas staying throughout the FCC’s necessities — one thing that may require each science and artwork. 

Sooner is at all times higher, after all, 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 can be good for these vertical purposes, it most likely wasn’t mandatory, and if the price have been to go up, such speeds wouldn’t be justifiable. So as an alternative, it could be the so-called “horizontal” market — wi-fi connectivity for common objective computer systems — that drove this want for pace. 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 legendary within the laptop business for 3 issues: Ethernet, Metcalfe’s Regulation, and 3Com. He co-invented Ethernet; that’s easy sufficient and can be grounds for his fame all by itself. Metcalfe’s Regulation— which, after all, shouldn’t be really a regulation of physics however nonetheless appears to have actual explanatory energy— states that the worth of a communication know-how is proportional to the sq. of the variety of related units. This intuitively believable “regulation” explains the viral snowball impact that may consequence from the rising reputation of a community know-how. However it could 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 lots of an important applied sciences of at this time, together with window-based graphic laptop interfaces and laser printing, along with Ethernet. However Xerox is legendary for “Fumbling the Future,” additionally the title of a 1999 ebook documenting how “Xerox invented, then ignored, the primary private laptop,” 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 unique firm to take his Ethernet invention to the market, and in 1979, he fashioned 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 know-how in distinction to 3Com’s Ethernet. However whereas Sytek targeting {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 know-how, 3Com turned a dominant participant within the booming workplace automation market in the course of the nineties that adopted the introduction of private computer systems. Bob Metcalfe was famously skeptical about wi-fi LANs. Within the August 16, 1993, challenge of InfoWorld, he wrote up his opinion in a bit entitled “Wi-fi computing will flop — completely”:

This isn’t to say there gained’t be any wi-fi computing. Wi-fi cell computer systems will ultimately be as frequent as at this time’s pipeless cell loos. Porta-potties are discovered on planes and boats, on building websites, at rock live shows, and different locations the place it is extremely 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 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 path they determined to take was going to be a major 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 until the wi-fi speeds elevated past the two megabits of the draft IEEE normal. However may they resolve to remain out of wi-fi fully, like Bob Metcalfe counselled, to concentrate on their robust market place with wired Ethernet? And in the event that they did resolve to affix the wi-fi world, would they develop their very own know-how to perform this? Or would they accomplice with an current wi-fi developer? The duty of navigating 3Com by way of this twisted path would fall to a disarmingly boyish enterprise improvement 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 discuss with you for a sec?” he whispered, and we each snuck quietly out of the assembly room. “Simply questioning if in case you have any time accessible to tackle a brand new undertaking.” 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 the direction of an internally developed implementation, however that in his opinion, it was extra promising for them to accomplice with one of many main lively gamers. 3Com wished to obtain an entire system of  wi-fi LAN merchandise that they might supply to their buyer base, comprising entry factors and plug-in adapters (“consumer units”) for each laptops and desktops. There would have to be a Request for Proposal developed, which might, after all, embody 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 corporations. 

Image ought to want no introduction, having been my consumer and having performed a significant function within the improvement of the DFWMAC protocol that was chosen as the muse for the 802.11 normal. Lucent could sound like a brand new participant, however in actual fact, that is merely our NCR Dutch colleagues from Utrecht — together with Wim, Cees, Vic, and Bruce — beneath a brand new company identify, NCR having been first purchased by AT&T after which spun off into Lucent. Aironet is equally an outdated pal beneath a brand new identify — again initially of our story, we noticed that the very first wi-fi LAN product authorised by the FCC was from a Canadian firm referred to as Telesystems, which ultimately 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 business at the moment, my DFWMAC co-author, Phil Belanger, had moved from Xircom to Aironet in early 1996. 

The 2 corporations right here who’re actually 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 vital 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 improvement undertaking. Since they have been centered on being a chip provider reasonably than an gear producer, we didn’t anticipate them to submit their very own proposal, nevertheless it was doubtless that different responders would incorporate their chips, so we definitely considered them as an vital 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 numerous candidate companions. Given 3Com’s place within the common LAN market, the extent of curiosity was excessive, and we certainly obtained an excellent set of proposals again from the businesses we anticipated, together with Image, Lucent, InTalk, and Aironet. These corporations, together with Harris, rapidly turned our focus, and we started a technique of intense engagement with all of them over the subsequent a number of months, constructing relationships within the course of {that a} 12 months later would in the end 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 an alternative 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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