Treating Wi-Fi As A Platform
By Mike Masnick, Tue Sep 14 23:15:00 GMT 2004

If Wi-Fi wants remain viable, maybe it's time that developers started treating it more like a platform, rather than just a connecting technology.

When talking to executives at companies in the wireless broadband space, the answers always get political when the discussion eventually comes around to questions concerning Wi-Fi's future. Wi-Fi has been a great technology; a path blazer that showed the world just what wireless broadband (and open spectrum) could do. However, the challenges are coming from both above (WiMAX, 3G and other wide area wireless broadband technologies) and below (Zigbee, UWB and other local area technologies). This doesn't mean, as some have claimed, that Wi-Fi is on the way out. All of those other technologies have large hurdles to overcome, but assuming that they do move forward, the answers aren't entirely clear as to where Wi-Fi will fit in.

Usually, people say something along the lines of "Wi-Fi will have its place." They'll say things suggesting that WiMAX will initially be used mostly for backhaul, and Wi-Fi will do a much better job for covering small areas. Eventually, though, many of these technical limitations on the other technologies will go away -- at which point it's not entirely clear where Wi-Fi fits. In fact, with Broadcom announcing some unexpected flatness in sales, some are pointing out that Wi-Fi may have stalled.

Whether or not the market really has stalled, Dana Blankenhorn does point out one way to put a bit of life back into Wi-Fi, and perhaps enough to help it find that "place" in the middle where it fits. Instead of just viewing Wi-Fi as a wireless networking technology, he suggests, it's time to view it as a "platform." That means designing specific applications to make better use of what Wi-Fi lets people do. Instead of just designing applications for the Internet, which can also be used via Wi-Fi, maybe we need more applications that are designed specifically with Wi-Fi in mind.

Some are already working on such applications. For example, there are positioning systems that are designed for Wi-Fi networks. Also, last week at DEMOmobile 2004, OnAir Entertainment launched an offering that would offer TV over Wi-Fi at hotspots while ViewSonic launched its own wireless gateway that really tries to push Wi-Fi to the next level by combining it with a storage server, simple interface and an easy connection to computers or TVs (add in some TiVo-like features and it's the home entertainment server so many have spoken about in the past). These are just a few small examples (which may not be successful), but it shows that at least a few companies are looking for ways to make Wi-Fi more useful, rather than just creating general Internet applications that will also work on Wi-Fi networks.

One of the things that surprised early adopters of Wi-Fi in the office environment was that it had unintended consequences. Instead of just making it easier to connect to the Internet without having to lay ethernet, it changed the way meetings happened, since (for the first time) everyone had access to all their own data, the corporate intranet, and the wider Internet during the meeting itself. The power of Wi-Fi isn't just in cutting the wires, but in enabling entirely new ways of doing things that could not have been done before. For Wi-Fi to remain relevant long-term, it needs applications and services that help enable new ways of doing things that simply couldn't be done before. It needs developers who view Wi-Fi as doing more than just expanding access to the Internet, but as a platform of its own.