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8/1/2003
00:26 AM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
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The Observer: Wi-Fi's Got Legs, But We've Got To Make It Walk

Forget the benefit-add, says Lou Bertin. We have a chance to shape wireless without a dominant market player calling the shots.

As my young friend and Optimize contributor Sean Ammirati (for whom we all will be working someday) likes to remind me, I finally got one right when I wrote of the promise of grid computing. His point on my point is that there is irrefutable logic to the linkage of existing underused resources to tackle problems that require additional horsepower on an ad hoc basis.

I first made that point two years ago (see "Grid Lions"), a little while after I wrote about the promise of high-touch, high-function DoCoMo wireless devices. There, too, I believed there was value in being able to combine advanced functionality within simple, already-accepted technology frameworks, in this case cell phones.

That it's taken a couple years for grids and advanced wireless communication functionality (even though the latter thus far seems to skew more toward ever-more-annoying downloadable ring tones than it does to business communication) to become accepted is a bit of a surprise, but on reflection, it shouldn't be. Enterprises as embracers of better tools and better ways for doing old things are notorious laggards. After all, it only took 20 years for computing power at the desktop level to demonstrate nationwide economic benefits. Given that, what's the big deal about a lag of a couple or three years?

Plenty, it says here. At a rare time when the economy is providing a bit of breathing space in terms of impelling enterprises to rush to implement the next big thing--and acknowledging that planning is far cheaper (and more interesting) than implementing--it's a wonder to me that virtually nobody I've spoken with over the past six months has acknowledged indulging in a bit of blue-sky scenarios. No what-if thinking is tolerated these days, or so it would seem. Instead, it's all about being operational and, to use one of my favorite new market-grown locutions, providing benefit-add. Pity that there's such myopia at play among us.

My thinking is prompted by the circumstance we've had land in our laps almost as a gift from the gods: the unprecedented confluence of the availability of (relatively) cheap technology, widespread and growing demand, and the absence of a single dominant market-controlling force.

I'm referring to Wi-Fi and to the fact that it's potentially a perfect storm scenario in the making, with the storm in this case being a force for blowing away much of what's been so wrong for so long.

For one, 802.11 is an unregulated standard that was developed from the ground up. So, too, has early demand grown from the ground up. Most important, there isn't an IBM, a Digital Equipment Corp. or a Microsoft (to go back three technology epochs) to muck the future up with market-stifling self interest.

Are there vested interests at stake? Sure. Intel, especially, and AMD have skin in the game; Wi-Fi service providers are betting their futures, and once the one-mile challenge is overcome (sooner rather than later, one hopes), the dinosaurs of the telephone companies and cable-television providers will have their last lunch eaten for them. If the regulators still need convincing that there's no need for them when it comes to delivering a zero or a one from point A to point B, there's no hope.

Will Wi-Fi be the same once it's commercialized? Hardly. What's free today likely will have a fee attached at some point in the future and, in some cases, a virtual vice versa will take shape. There will be confusion and the inevitable shake-outs. Those all are givens.

But what's absolutely critical here is that the market will be free to evolve in and of itself, driven overwhelmingly by what users need or want or will be enticed by, rather than what the controlling interests deign provide us. Wi-Fi providers are just that: providers. What we do with what they provide is up to us and only us. When was the last time that scenario ever existed in the context of enterprise technology? The answer is never.

Craig Barrett, Intel's CEO, talks about Wi-Fi having legs, and he's right. What we as a market need to realize is that we are those legs and we're at last free to vote, limited only by our insight and imagination, limited only by crumbling distance restrictions and disappearing service-area boundaries. Most important, we're beholden only to those who exist to serve us as we wish, not by gatekeeper tyrants.

A final note on timing: at the outset of this sermonette, I talked a bit about two-year, three-year, and 20-year gestation periods. Keep in mind that it's been about 3-1/2 years since Apple developed a commercially viable Wi-Fi standard. On the gestational chart, it appears Wi-Fi's time has come--let 'er rip!


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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