Wi-Fi Gets Going

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Take a peek under your desk. See that snarl of cables, leads, paper clips and lost printouts cascading from the butt end of your PC? Well, etch the ugly sight into your memory for nostalgic reference. Computer cables are going the way of eight-tracks, pet rocks and typewriters. A wireless revolution is seeping into our homes, schools, offices and gathering points very quietly, and setting up what appears to be a face-off between two competing technical standards.

Dozens of institutions, from cafes to lumbering corporations, have already made it possible to link PCs and notebooks to the Internet without wires. If you have the right expansion card on your laptop, you can walk into a Starbucks in New York City today and, for a small fee, browse the Net over a high-priced cup of coffee. This revolution has also made its way into airport terminals and the homes of technophiles sick of tripping over cables.

The instigators of the revolution are two standards that allow machines to talk to one another, known as Bluetooth and IEEE 802.11b or, more popularly, Wi-Fi. Both connect gadgets cheaply by accessing a swath of free radio spectrum over which to exchange digital data. Bluetooth, named for a Viking king (one of its original backers is Sweden's Ericsson) and supported by some 2,500 companies that constitute the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, is basically a substitute for all those cables you now use to link peripheral devices, such as pdas and printers, to other computerized devices. Chips up to 30 ft. apart built on the new standard can exchange audio and data at a rate of 500 to 1,000 kilobytes every second--more than 10 times as fast as your dial-up modem.

Wi-Fi transmits data 10 times that distance and at much more than 100 times the rate of a dial-up modem, making it an ideal technology for linking computers to one another and to the Net in a wireless local-area network, or WLAN. It also has the advantage of being unequivocally here and relatively easy to use. All you need is a specialized PC card (for as low as $90) that slips into a slot in your computer, and an access point or base station (available for less than $300) capable of linking several computers. The downside? Higher power means higher power consumption--which reduces a laptop's battery life drastically. "It's physics," says Jeff Calcagno, vice president of strategy and corporate development at Widcomm, Inc. "There's always going to be that basic trade-off." Another potentially serious problem is the inherent security risk associated with beaming data through the air.

Manufacturers hoping to boost a sagging PC market are racing to equip computers for wireless networking. "It's considered something of vast importance, given the economic slowdown," says International Data Corp. (IDC) analyst Jason Smolek. Compaq, Gateway and Dell are all selling computers with built-in wireless networking capabilities. IBM launched a top-line Wi-Fi equipped laptop named ThinkPad T23 in late July that offers enhanced security features. Apple, which virtually pioneered wireless home networking when it launched AirPort in 1999, is ahead of the pack. All its computers have been WLAN-ready since then.

Predictably, all this competition has made wireless networking more affordable. Gemma Paulo, an analyst for Cahners In-Stat Group, says that the price of Wi-Fi PC cards should drop 26% this year and expects the $138 average price for 2001 to drop to $33 by 2005. Access points are also becoming cheaper.

Who is contributing to the WLAN kitty? Everybody, it seems, though the educational market stands out. Several universities have set up WLAN networks. Greg Joswiak, a senior marketing director at Apple, says the largest ever sale of laptops--23,000 iBooks sold to Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia--was driven by the machines' wireless capabilities. Equipment manufacturers have caught on as well. Agere Systems, a Lucent spin-off, began shipping what it says is a complete wireless kit for small offices and homes last month for $349. According to Cahners In-Stat, wireless-equipment sales to all sectors grew 88%, from $623 million in 1999 to nearly $1.17 billion last year. IDC projects that its revenues should triple to $3.2 billion in the next four years.

Where vendors go, service providers follow. At least six start-ups are rapidly deploying public wireless-access points across the country. The Gartner Group says there will be some 25,000 public access points for wireless networks in North America by 2005. Today, Wayport, a network service provider based in Texas, caters to 400 hotels--including the Four Seasons and the Marriott chains--and to four airports. Another Texas firm, MobileStar, has set up WLANS at airport terminals, hotels, American Airlines Admirals Clubs and some 500 Starbucks cafes in seven cities. Both have various payment options, including single-use, daily and monthly rates.

Where's Bluetooth? The question vexes Bluetooth believers these days. The runaway success of Wi-Fi has fueled rumors of a nascent standards war, a la VHS vs. Betamax, that could be toxic to Bluetooth. That view gained some currency in June, when Microsoft and Intel joined the board of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, a group of 103 companies pushing to make Wi-Fi the standard for wireless LANS. Microsoft, previously a big supporter of Bluetooth, decided earlier in April to write Wi-Fi into its latest operating system, citing a dearth of Bluetooth products.

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