February 20, 2004, 5:32 PM — Why does it seem as though there are so many organizations that are Wi-this and Wi-that? Because there are - and they now play an important if not critical role in the development and marketing of many new wireless technologies. And while they all begin with "Wi", each has a distinct focus and set of objectives, which may eventually involve conflict with one another. This week, we look at the most important of these associations, and explore what they're trying to do.
By now we've all heard of Wi-Fi. At one point Wi-Fi was a trademark, but it has fallen into common use as a general term describing wireless LANs (WLANs). Wi-Fi, as you might guess, is short for "Wireless fidelity", a rather clever marketing slogan originated by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), formed by a number of leading WLAN vendors in 1999. The original mission of WECA was simple - provide interoperability testing for 802.11b-based products of different manufacturers.
The IEEE 802.11 standard didn't, still doesn't, and likely never will include either compliance to the standard, or compatibility testing and verification (among given implementations of products based on the standard). The founders of WECA reasoned that customers would be more inclined to take a chance on what was then a new and unproven technology if an independent authority would certify interoperability - a very good assumption. This was all of five years ago, mind you - quite remarkable considering that everyone seems to have a wireless LAN now.
WECA, now the Wi-Fi Alliance, has been a major factor in the adoption of WLANs, especially in the residence (i.e., using products available through retail channels sold to relatively network-unsophisticated customers). A big challenge in recent years has been the rapid evolution of 802.11 standards to include new physical layers (.11a, .11g, and in 2005, .11n), as well as new multimedia (.11e) and security (.11i) features.
Given the broad range of potential incompatibilities, based on the breadth of the standard, optional features in the standard itself, "standards plus" (extended) implementations from vendors, and differing implementations of exactly what the standard says, resulting in unintentionally-incompatible implementations, the Wi-Fi Alliance still has its work cut out for it.