Random thoughts: WMANs, WLANs, PDAs, and cell phone noise pollution

Farpoint Group –

Over the holiday weekend, I cleaned up a few things -- including some thoughts about recent news. So, this week, I'll offer a few disjoint items I hope you'll find of interest.

First, the IEEE 802.16-2004 standard was approved about a week ago. Sometimes known during its development as 802.16a or 802.16d, this standard for point-to-point and point-to-multipoint wireless metropolitan-area networks (WMANs) will form the basis of the WiMAX specification. Note the difference between standard and a specification: A standard essentially has the force of law, and is (in an ideal form) the precise definition of an interface between two or more objects. A specification is less formal, and is usually the product of a trade association (like the WiMAX Forum) as opposed to a recognized standards body like the IEEE. IEEE standards are developed through a rigorous process that is fair, open, and auditable. A specification need not have any of these virtues (with no aspersions intended here towards WiMAX, by the way!). And while the purposes of these two types of documents is often the same (to sell more stuff), they address very different needs. An IEEE standard doesn't specify, for example, compliance, conformance, or interoperability testing. And that's why the WiMAX Forum was formed -- to grow the market for wireless broadband by providing these missing requirements for success.

But will the availability of 802.16-2004 and WiMAX really grow the market? There's the obvious scenario that standards and interoperability specs do indeed lower costs, and thus allow for lower prices. Lower costs are the result of the investment in VLSI that becomes feasible as the result of the existence of a standard. Prices, however, are determined by the market, most notably through competition. Regardless, it does seem likely that the price of fixed microwave communications equipment will fall, thus allowing such gear to perhaps compete with wireline broadband, most notably xDSL and cable modems. But there are other costs to consider, including real estate, towers, local permits and licenses, and more. The cable and DSL guys can cut their prices significantly if they wish. So it's unclear to me that we'll see a lot of new fixed wireless broadband in our part of the world any time soon. But note that work continues on a mobile version of 802.16 (still called 802.16e), and then it gets interesting; more on that later this year. In the meantime, I do expect WiMAX to lower prices in venues where fixed microwave is the only option, mostly in developing economies offshore.

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Another IEEE standard, 802.11i, was also approved in the last week. This is the long-awaited improvement to wireless LAN security, and is essentially everything in Wireless Protected Access (WPA) plus the addition of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). Note, however, that this security standard only applies to the airlink, and not to the end-to-end security that I've advocated for some time. And while it does encrypt traffic at the MAC layer, and thus encapsulates everything above the MAC, it will most likely require new client adapters. This is because AES is very computationally intensive (as opposed to WEP, which is trivial to implement), and will thus be provisioned via a coprocessor or an additional processor within the 802.11 chipset in most cases. I think that the use of VPNs is going to accelerate, especially on WLAN links, so 802.11i may not be a necessary upgrade for most users. Regardless, all users should adopt at least WPA in any WLAN network. Security is no place to take chances, and WPA is now widely available and fairly easy to use. But if you want the suspenders-and-a-belt approach, then take a look at 802.11i. Products will be on the market over the next few months.

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Are PDAs doomed? Sony's recent departure from the US PDA market got many analysts to thinking that perhaps they are. One argument that's being made is that a PDA without wireless makes little sense any more, so PDA phones and Wi-Fi PDAs are perhaps the way we're all going to go. Maybe; I think the argument can still be made for the $100 PDA as a phone book and scheduler, especially if it's easy to exchange information with other platforms and devices. But therein lays the real problems with PDAs: the "easy" part. I have owned many PDAs, both Palm OS and Pocket PC, since the early days of both platforms. I've never found either to be terribly easy to use, although I will give the advantage here to Palm. Pocket PC (or whatever Microsoft is calling it this week) is an abomination -- "hard to use" doesn't begin to describe the situation. This is because of Microsoft's penchant for viewing every platform as a computer. MS should be thinking appliance, but whenever important decisions need to be made at Microsoft, the company always seems to favor its traditional target audience of techies. This has been the culture of Microsoft since its founding -- end users can buy books, attend classes, or jump off a bridge; Microsoft just doesn't care. So, I note here, if one wants to grow the market for PDAs, or any other high-tech product, ease-of-use is the place to start. Think customer, not computer.

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Finally, have you ever wondered why people on cell phones tend to talk so loudly? I was on a bus from New York to Boston last week (yes, a bus -- much better than flying), and the guy behind me yakked all the way home at the top of his lungs. I know many people think this behavior is the result of poor cellular connections, but I don't think so -- it's the result of no feedback in the earpiece of most cell phones. Try this yourself -- can you hear yourself on your cell phone when you talk? Probably not. So, why do the phone manufacturers not provide what most landline phones do by default? Because they're trying to conserve battery power, and this might even be construed to be a legitimate tradeoff. So, keep in mind that you probably don't need to talk so loudly on your cell phone; they can hear you just fine at the other end. You should also keep in mind that those around you may be learning a lot more about your affairs than you'd care to reveal.

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