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The wireless seal of approval

As wireless technology becomes more ubiquitous, the good folks of the Wi-Fi Alliance are finding themselves busier than ever.

As wireless technology becomes more ubiquitous, the good folks of the Wi-Fi Alliance are finding themselves busier than ever. The nonprofit international organization was formed in 1999 to certify interoperability of wireless Local Area Network products that were based on IEEE’s 802.11 standard.

Thanks to the group, a user doesn’t have to buy wireless products and hope for the best; a “Wi-Fi Certified” label developed by the alliance has become like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for wireless products. In other words, if what you’re buying doesn’t sport a certified seal, then buyer beware. Frank Hanzlik, managing director at the Wi-Fi Alliance, chats about how wireless has become the most popular kid in today’s technology class.

When you look at the rise of wireless, what surprises you the most?

I’ve been surprised by the demand; wireless has just been extraordinarily successful. If you look at laptops in particular, just a few years ago there weren’t any that had Wi-Fi. Now, over half of them do. I’ve heard estimates that within another year or two, about 80 or 90 percent of laptops will be wireless-enabled. That’s just amazing.

I think this success will keep continuing as well. Consumer electronics companies are starting to embed Wi-Fi inside other kinds of devices, from gaming equipment to plasma TVs, and they’re starting to become more powerful with the addition of Wi-Fi.

Also, we’re seeing whole new applications, like VoIP coming into the Wi-Fi space, which is going to affect enterprises. We’ve had quite a challenge keeping up with all of it.

For clarification, how does Wi-Fi fit into the wireless technology realm?

Wi-Fi is a flavor of wireless, like Bluetooth and cellular. Basically, cellular is wide area technology, which is true to its name; it can cover a large area. Bluetooth is more of a personal technology, it’s short range of 10 meters or less.

So, if you want to synch your PDA with your laptop, for example, you’d use Bluetooth. Wi-Fi is a local area networking technology, so it fits right in the middle. It allows you to have wireless connections in coffee houses and conference rooms, and anywhere else that’s within a certain distance from a wireless base station.

What have been some of the challenges of getting Wi-Fi rolled out to a mass audience?

The technology has been around for a number of years, but when the Alliance started, the only people using it were early adopters and tech evangelists. Now that it’s becoming more popular with mainstream users, we’re seeing that manufacturers have to face the challenge of usability.

If you have tech-savvy people adopting a technology when it’s new, you usually don’t need to have simple installation techniques and devices that are easy to use. They’ll figure it all out.

But when technology hits the mainstream, there has to be much more of a focus on usability, because people don’t want to be spending time with a user interface that’s confusing. They want to bring a device home from CompUSA and be able to use it fairly quickly. So, that’s the direction manufacturers have to go.

In the past, security issues have kept some people from diving fully into wireless. How much have those problems been reduced?

By quite a bit. Actually, security was the reason that the Alliance was created. We saw that there was a fundamental need in all wireless broadband for robust security, and what was available wasn’t working. So, what we were able to do was to take the core of an emerging IEEE standard, 802.11i, and use ingredients of that to make something more stable.

We wrapped a specification around it, Wi-Fi Protected Access, or WPA. It’s been a huge step forward in terms of addressing security concerns.

Your “Wi-Fi Certified” label is appearing on more and more products. Are consumers on the lookout for it now?

Definitely, we’re seeing a big trend in users who are asking for certified products. Retailers, too, are very interested in carrying these products. That’s because they know that these are wireless products that can be trusted. Anything that’s certified by us has gone through our testing program, and we’re very serious about making sure that products deserve the certification before we give it to them.

As we start crossing the chasm from early adopters to mainstream users, people are going to expect that there should be a minimum level of quality and security to the Wi-Fi products they buy, and that’s what we’re providing.

What do you see in the long-term future for Wi-Fi?

There are a variety of exciting things ahead. There will be even more enhancements in the security area, and we’ll be able to stay ahead of compromises and breaches so that will drive improvement. There are also many things happening in the public access space, like with coffee shops and other hotspots.

Right now, there’s a certification program that’s expanding into public access to make sure that the products being developed for those places are secure and appropriate.

We’re also seeing more of an interplay between local area technologies like Wi-Fi and cellular technologies. There are a variety of manufacturers that are exploring how these technologies can work better together, and that should result in more integrated chipsets.

There’s a great deal that can be done with that integration in devices, it would essentially make you truly wireless. And that’s what people want to be, as we’ve found out again and again. No one wants to be tethered.

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