Whitecap wears a black hat
Just when it's looking like the Wireless Ethernet Compatibil-ity Alliance 802.11b wireless network folks have wrestled the home market away from HomeRF, a new standards skirmish is brewing in the WECA camp.
After a slow start, the 802.11b specification has won widespread support, and a slew of vendors have lined up with 802.11b networking gear. Meanwhile, Sharewave, a home network silicon maker, has tweaked 802.11b to optimize it for multimedia, namely MPEG2 audio and video. You'll find the enhanced version, called Whitecap, in Netgear's just-announced Wireless 11x products, and Panasonic's Concourse Broadband Networking Gateway.
Sharewave gave me a demo of White-cap last week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Wow, was it ever better. They'd set up two identical wireless home networks, each with a PC, a notebook and a video connection to a video display. One used Cisco's Aironet network, the other Sharewave's technology. The idea was to illustrate that "vanilla" 802.11b is "collision based," meaning data packets bump along and crash into each other, get lost and re-emerge, but most eventually make it to their destination. That's fine for transferring a file or print job, but lousy for multimedia.
On the Aironet network Sharewave transferred an MPEG2 video file from a notebook PC across the net to video display. The video tripped along in a way that'd make you boo and throw popcorn at the screen. When they transferred a 1M-byte file, the trailer stopped dead for a few seconds before jolting back into action. Clearly, vanilla 802.11b isn't ready to deliver entertainment applications. Yet, it's the wireless technology you'll find in nearly all the first wave of residential gateways.
On the Sharewave net, the trailer played smoothly. Whitecap is just what you want in the home, but if you've already got 802.11b in the office, you're in for some teeth gnashing. The first version of Whitecap is not compatible with existing 802.11b products. So if you buy Netgear gear or the Panasonic gateway with an eye to plugging in your corporate Lucent or Aironet 802.11b card, it won't work.
If you're willing to wait, Sharewave promises the next version of Whitecap, expected this summer, will be compatible. Over time, Sharewave contends the specification will come together under 802.11e -- a version that runs on a 5-GHz band and provides quality of support -- expected by 2001. But for now, Sharewave sees the big players, including Lucent and Cisco, as competitors, and is busy stealing the smaller ones away in Whitecap licensing agreements.