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

The fashionable world of client 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 cellular units and sensible 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 under, Ennis recounts the harrowing ultimate days of pitching and shows earlier than finally convincing the IEEE 802.11 Wi-fi LAN requirements committee to undertake their candidate protocol in addition to look at the surface affect that Bob Metcalf — inventor of each Ethernet, the usual, and 3Com, the tech firm — had on Wi-Fi’s eventual emergence.

white writing on a blue background the V is a WiFi signal strength indicator

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 crammed in—most essential being an encryption scheme—however the committee settled right into a routine of creating draft variations of the MAC sections of the last word customary doc. On the January 1994 assembly in San Jose, I used to be chosen to be Technical Editor of your complete (MAC+PHY) customary together with Bob O’Hara, and the 2 of us would proceed to function editors by means of the primary publication of the ultimate customary in 1997. 

The primary draft of the MAC sections was mainly 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 can be debates and selections 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 reality, practically 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 principle and circuit design meant that increased speeds is likely to be attainable past the 2-megabit most within the draft customary. Many firms inside the trade had been beginning to take a look at increased speeds even earlier than the unique customary was lastly formally adopted in 1997. Attaining a pace higher than 10 megabits — comparable to plain Ethernet — had grow to be the wi-fi LAN trade’s Holy Grail. The problem was to do that whereas staying inside the FCC’s necessities — one thing that will require each science and artwork. 

Quicker is all the time higher, after all, however what was driving the push for 10 megabits? What wi-fi functions had been actually going to require 10-megabit speeds? The dominant functions for wi-fi LANs within the Nineteen Nineties had been the so-called “verticals” — for instance, Image’s installations that concerned handheld barcode scanners for stock administration. Such specialised wi-fi networks had been put in by vertically built-in system suppliers providing a whole service bundle, together with {hardware}, software program, functions, coaching, and help, therefore the “vertical” nomenclature. Whereas 10-megabit speeds can be good for these vertical functions, it in all probability wasn’t vital, and if the price had 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 normal objective computer systems — that drove this want for pace. Specifically, the predominantly Ethernet-based workplace automation market, with PCs related to shared printers and file servers, was seen as requiring sooner speeds than the IEEE customary’s 2 megabits.

Bob Metcalfe is legendary within the pc trade 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 truly a regulation 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 “regulation” explains the viral snowball impact that may outcome from the rising reputation of a community expertise. 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 position in creating lots of crucial applied sciences of right this moment, together with window-based graphic pc interfaces and laser printing, along with Ethernet. However Xerox is legendary 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 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 targeted 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 functions for shared PC entry to information 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 gained’t be any wi-fi computing. Wi-fi cellular computer systems will ultimately be as widespread as right this moment’s pipeless cellular bogs. Porta-potties are discovered on planes and boats, on building websites, at rock concert events, and different locations the place it is vitally inconvenient to run pipes. However bogs are nonetheless predominantly plumbed. For roughly the identical causes, computer systems will keep wired.

Was his comparability of wi-fi to porta-potties simply bitter grapes? In any case, that is coming from the inventor of Ethernet, the very archetype of a wired community. In any occasion, we had 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 path they determined to take was going to be a major issue out there. 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 customary. However may they determine to remain out of wi-fi utterly, like Bob Metcalfe counselled, to concentrate on their sturdy market place with wired Ethernet? And in the event that they did determine to affix the wi-fi world, would they develop their very own expertise to perform this? Or would they associate with an current wi-fi developer? The duty of navigating 3Com by means 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 when you’ve got any time obtainable to tackle a brand new mission.” 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 instructed me that that they had already made some progress in the direction of an internally developed implementation, however that in his opinion, it was extra promising for them to associate with one of many main energetic gamers. 3Com wished to acquire a whole system of  wi-fi LAN merchandise that they might supply to their buyer base, comprising entry factors and plug-in adapters (“shopper 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 job 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 position within the growth of the DFWMAC protocol that was chosen as the inspiration for the 802.11 customary. Lucent might 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 — beneath a brand new company title, NCR having been first purchased by AT&T after which spun off into Lucent. Aironet is equally an previous pal beneath a brand new title — again in the beginning 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 trade right now, 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 had been important contributors to the event of the ultimate textual content inside the 802.11 customary. 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 mission. Since they had been targeted on being a chip provider slightly than an tools producer, we didn’t anticipate them to submit their very own proposal, however it was probably that different responders would incorporate their chips, so we definitely considered them as an essential 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 had been in a position to present the ultimate model to numerous 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 strategy 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 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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