Pre-N wireless purchase worth the leap

April 21, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

ALTHOUGH I'm the semiofficial tech guru for many readers, colleagues and friends, I've never been one to hang out on the bleeding edge of technology. True, I try out a lot of gadgets because it's fun and I get to write about my experiences. But in real life, I tell people to be careful before committing serious money or time, or even a chunk of their livelihood, to any new technology.

So I've had mixed feelings over the past couple of months about whether people should buy a new kind of wireless networking equipment called "Pre-N." According to the latest hype (and a firsthand report from my boss, the gadget fanatic) it's much faster and provides far better coverage than older networking gear.

That's an important claim, because wireless networking is one of the real successes of the industry. It allows consumers to share a broadband connection among several PCs, as well as share files and printers in their home. And most people can set it up themselves.

One of the reasons wireless networking operates so seamlessly (and one of the reasons millions of travelers can log onto wireless hotspots in shops, airports and hotels) is that all wireless networking equipment, regardless of manufacturer, meets the same industry standards for exchanging information.

When I looked into "Pre-N" wireless, I realized that a handful of equipment-makers were jumping the gun on the latest, and still unresolved, standard for wireless network transmissions.

As a result, the bold and curious can get their hands on some really hot stuff these days - wireless networks fast enough to stream high-quality video signals.

That, in turn, makes possible the whole notion of the "wired" home, a concept that has languished everywhere outside of enthusiast magazines because most homes don't have the network wiring it takes to pump high-speed data from basement to attic and everyplace in between. Now it appears those cables may not be necessary.

The downside is that once the industry agrees on how this new technology should work, the hardware you buy could become obsolete. That might mean replacing it down the road because it's not expandable any more. Or, if you use it in a business setting, your system could be incompatible with travelers who stop by.

That's why standards are important. Basically, they're technical agreements by the major players in an industry - sometimes prompted or led by the government - to do basic things in a consistent manner so that equipment from one manufacturer can work seamlessly with another's.

For example, if I buy a desk lamp anywhere in the United States, I know I'll be able to plug it into any outlet in the United States. That's because electrical plugs, outlets and the alternating 120-volt current are standard across the country. Likewise, if the lamp uses a standard-base incandescent bulb, I can buy one with a GE, Philips, Wal-Mart or Safeway label with the confidence that it will fit the lamp and light up the room.

Imagine what a mess there would be if every lamp-maker used a proprietary bulb and every electric company required its own brand of plug - and required you to buy a lamp that used the particular voltage it supplied.

Over the years, the automotive, electric and building industries have developed thousands of standards, including such esoterica as the pitch on the threads of nuts and bolts, the height of electrical outlets, the area of toilet tank flappers and the size and shape of telephone jacks.

Industry standards also govern the ways PCs talk to one other, and to you. For example, the Internet exists because a group of experts developed a standard that allows different types of computers to communicate with one another - a protocol known as TCP/IP. It's the basic scheme that makes Web browsing, e-mail and other Net occupations possible.

For moving data in and out of PCs (and lots of other gadgets), the most powerful standard-setting body is the IEEE, or Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. A professional association that serves as a clearinghouse and promoter of all electric technology, IEEE has developed almost 900 active standards, with about 700 more under development.

Most of these standards have geeky-sounding code names, and one of the geekiest is 802.11x, which determines the ways wireless computer networks exchange data (the industry wisely calls it "Wi-Fi"). The "x" is important because it's a placeholder for other letters that determine exactly what set of wireless standards apply.

These standards evolve over time when working groups of engineers - many from competing companies - get together in hotel rooms during IEEE conferences and duke it out over which company's technology, or which combinations of technology, the IEEE will adopt as its standard for a particular task. It takes a long time, it's highly political and it's not pretty. But over the long haul, it works pretty well.

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