Early Wi-Fi gear may prove risky investment

Analyst firm Gartner recently warned clients that interoperability issues could arise not just among 802.11g products but also among 802.11g and the older 802.11b, which both operate at 2.4 GHz.

At least for now, the "g" in 802.11g LANs stands for gamble.

In recent months, the first products based on a draft version of the 802.11g wireless LAN specification have emerged, even though the IEEE hasn't approved the standard. Nor has it undergone Wi-Fi Alliance's interoperability testing.

Gartner recently warned clients that interoperability issues could arise not just between 802.11g products but also between 802.11g and the older 802.11b, which both operate at 2.4 GHz.

Nonetheless, small office/home office network vendors Buffalo TechnologyD-LinkLinksys, Netgear and SMC are shipping products before the final specification, expected this summer.

"The only way to be sure the products will interoperate between different vendors is to make sure they are Wi-Fi certified," says a Wi-Fi Alliance spokesman.

The group warns that several factors can prevent interoperability. Vendor implementations of the same chip might differ, and different chipset vendors might implement various elements of the standard differently.

Vendors say there's no risk in buying the first iteration of products because a free firmware upgrade to the finalized specification will be offered. But many technical users - who have experience with these vendors - are heeding the warnings.

"I won't buy 802.11g products until the standards issues are worked out," says Tim Roussos, a sales director for a major telecom company in Ohio. "The risks of buying products now that might change far outweigh the benefits of going with that now."

"Who pays if the products don't upgrade flawlessly?" asks Keith Krebs, an independent IT contractor from New Jersey. "The vendor? It's just a foolish situation to put oneself in. In today's environment, a mistaken choice to go with this early deployment could be disastrous."

Mike Avery takes a different approach. The Colorado freelance writer and network consultant says, "Whether I'll use 802.11g depends on how desperate my clients are for speed. I'd look at it as a disposable purchase - assuming it can pay for itself between now and the time the real thing hits the street."

However, many consumers don't know of the potential problem, nor do they understand the technology. Some assume 802.11g's 54M bit/sec speeds will yield them faster surfing, or assume the newest products are the most desirable. And even though vendors say on their Web sites and boxes that 802.11g products are prestandard, many consumers don't know - or care - what that means.

"I didn't know about this certification thing," says Bill Morgan, a contracts administrator in Birmingham, Ala."I probably wouldn't have bought it if I knew."

"Was I supposed to have known this?" asks Dwane Labbee, who runs an antique clock business in Ventura County, Calif. "I asked a lot of vendors a lot of questions before I bought this. I don't think any of them know this either or they would have told me."

"I did a bunch of research and asked Linksys what I should buy," says Donna Arduni, a home-based accountant in Wayne, N.J. "I didn't really know the technology part of it. I just needed something quick." She plans to add to her network and use 802.11g to connect at local hot spots. "I just wanted to go with the top. I didn't know it was still in development. If I had, I wouldn't have touched it."

Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, says his organization "can't tell people not to buy prestandard products."

However, he says consumers shouldn't expect to see certified products any earlier than July. Until then, "it would be nice if we could put a surgeon general's warning on the box," he adds.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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