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The Skeptic

The Skeptic

We hear that Vivato has raised $44.5 million for their wireless infrastructure business. It's nice to know someone's got the cash!

It's enough to remind us of the excesses of the dot-com days, with inflatable boardrooms and business plans written on the back of napkins sure to follow. I'm not suggesting that Vivato is using napkins for stationery, or bouncing around their boardroom (though on getting $44.5 million, a certain amount of bouncing would be expected), but with hotspots still being a completely unproven business model, it beggars belief that this kind of money is being thrown at them.

Let me be clear, I'm not anti Wi-Fi. I use it at home and at work, and I've even been known to log on from the hotel on occasion. But what I am having problems with is the way Wi-Fi is being promoted as the solution to problems we didn't even know we had, a replacement for all other radio technologies and a way of taking down the evil telco giants.

Westminster Council, in the center of London, recently announced plans to "Wi-Fi" the whole of Soho. While traditionally associated with the, shall we say, more adult side of the London tourist industry, this district is actually nowadays a creative mecca of advertising and design companies. The idea is all very worthy, but the technical reality is that this just isn't possible. Quite apart from the problems of load balancing and frequency availability, there is the question of how this is going to affect companies that are already running Wi-Fi in their offices: Does the council have the right to interfere with their available bandwidth?

While it's certainly possible to run several overlapping Wi-Fi access points, each will interfere with the others, and as the number of overlaps increases so will the number of lost packets. The unregulated spectrum we value so highly may have to become regulated just to make it usable.

Wi-Fi is, of course, fantastically easy to use; after all, it's just like Ethernet without the wires. But Ethernet is a 20-year-old protocol for connecting stationary machines. More modern protocols like Bluetooth have features at their core that serve to demonstrate how restrictive using a 20-year-old protocol can be; power saving, device discovery, and name retrieval allow Bluetooth devices to find each other and work out if it's worth talking further, while Wi-Fi use is limited to those users able to configure arcane settings and know the right names.

While Wi-Fi re-creates the desktop experience, Bluetooth contains dozens of other standards such as vCard and WAP, which means machines don't just connect, they communicate. Wideband CDMA has charging systems and security from the ground up, and can provide seamless handoff (from one cell to another) without the user having to do more than phone a friend. While it's possible some of these features will make it to Wi-Fi one day, they will be layered on top, resting on IP, which is itself resting on the radio implementation of a 20-year-old protocol. Adding more coats of paint won't make the underlying technology any prettier.

While not having to worry about wires in the office is nice, and early-adopting workaholics can demonstrate their company commitment by sending e-mail from the airport, beyond those demographics it's hard to see what Wi-Fi is for, the killer application that will put it into the hands of enough people to make it economically viable. Make no mistake, the killer application for a mobile phone is voice calls, everything else is fluff. The idea of teenagers downloading music on the move, or housewives ordering their shopping from the bus, is clearly insane. Teenagers will download music, but they'll do it while they're sitting in a comfortable chair at home, and the people I know who shop online like to do so with a nice cup of tea or coffee handy. Most Wi-Fi hotspots are used by enterprise employees checking e-mail, a job that can be done better with a Palm or BlackBerry device, which is not only cheaper to buy but will outlast a Wi-Fi enabled laptop by an order of magnitude.

The energy consumption of Wi-Fi is truly remarkable. While Bluetooth devices happily last for weeks, and RFID tags seem to need no power at all, Wi-Fi can drain a laptop battery in a matter of minutes. By creating a simple protocol based on known standards, the designers have missed the opportunity to create something more suited to the mobile user.

I'm not suggesting that Wi-Fi is going to vanish overnight, or that it lacks a place in the wireless technosphere. For offices, hotels, and airports, there are enough laptops and keen-to-impress businesspeople to make it worthwhile. But it will always be a niche product for niche users, while blanket coverage is best left to the technologies designed for it.

More Stories By Bill Ray

Bill Ray, former editor-in-chief (and continuing distinguished contributor to) Wireless Business & Technology magazine, has been developing wireless applications for over 20 ears on just about every platform available. Heavily involved in Java since its release, he developed some of the first cryptography applications for Java and was a founder of JCP Computer Services, a company later sold to Sun Microsystems. At Swisscom he was responsible for the first Java-capable DTV set-top box, and currently holds the position of head of Enabling Software at 02, a UK network operator.

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