October 08, 2003, 3:37 PM — The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is perhaps the most important IT-related standards body, and 802.11 is arguably the most successful IEEE standard after 802.3, which is usually referred to as Ethernet. And, like 802.3, 802.11 is in fact a family of standards. We need to begin with this point because it's a source of significant confusion.
802.11 uses suffix letters to name each working group (WG), the subcommittees that develop specific extensions to the standard. These letters are assigned sequentially over time and no ranking or hierarchy is implied - an important point to remember as we look at each WG below. Also, some WGs are developing extensions to the physical (PHY) layer of the standard, and some are enhancing the medium-access control (MAC) layer.
PHYs are specific definitions of radios (the vehicles that put information on and take it off the air); the MAC is common to all PHYs and contains such functionality as the definition of how individual stations access the airwaves in an orderly fashion, power management, security, and many other functions. Some additional functionality, common to all IEEE 802 networking standards, is defined in IEEE 802.1. This "above the MAC" repository defines such capabilities as the highly-visible 802.1x authentication standard. But the choice of whether to use 802.1 or any other networking strategy or features is usually up to the enterprise or the specific user - it's not part of 802.11.
The original 802.11 standard was approved in June of 1997, after more than seven years of work - a long time by IEEE standards (so to speak). This first standard specified several (incompatible) flavors of one- and two-Mbps PHYs, and a broad range of MAC features - many of which, as it turned out, needed significant additional work. Couple this with the fact that 1 and 2 Mbps just weren't fast enough, and the suffixes began to appear.