June 29th, 2004

802.11a may still win the Wifi war

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With the rise of popularity of 802.11b, there are two promising work on higher speed Wifi: 802.11a that on 5Ghz range and 802.11g that on 2.4Ghz range. Both boast of similar speed at around 54mbps but 11g is backward compatibility with 11b whereas 11a isn’t. And as 11a runs on different spectrum, you need another chip which makes the hardware more expensive.

Sony is an early adoptor of 11a (with its Vaio a/b base station which I dont think was sold outside Japan) and on the other side is Apple Extreme with 11b/g. Because of the backward compatiblity with 11b, and cheaper cost, it is obvious (including to me then) that 11g is going to win the market. Other hardware vendors jump onto the 11g bandwagon and so we started to see the poliferation of 11g hardware.

But now, I believe the war is not over and 11a may win out afterall. The reason is simple: The greatest strength in 11g in its backward compatibility is also its greatest weakness.

Because of the backward compatible, we often use 11g devices together with 11b devices. What is not obvious (until you pushed the network) is that in such mixed enviroment, all devices are “downgrade” to operate at 11b (ie 11mbps) which negates the reason you buy 11g devices in the first place! It is like buying a sportcar that can do 180mph but you never get past 60mph because you are struck in the traffic jam. Such problem does not exists in a/b network.

So Sony might be right afterall. I forsee we will start to see a/b (or even a/g) devices coming back to the market.

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