A wireless industry group, worried about incompatibilities among next-generation routers and network cards, will start certifying products next year without waiting for the completion of technical standards.
Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, said that without a certification program, the market could have been fragmented by the growing number and variety of pre-standard "Draft N" or "Pre-N" products claiming faster speeds and greater range. The products take their names from the upcoming 802.11n standard.
As early as a month ago, the alliance, which ensures Wi-Fi products from different companies work together, indicated it wouldn't certify the interoperability of the pre-N products. But delays within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the professional association that shepherds the standards process, prompted the Wi-Fi Alliance to rethink, Hanzlik said.
Currently, the IEEE is working on integrating thousands of comments and edits to a draft standard.
Hanzlik said he expects to use the next version of the draft for testing and certification -- but that if the IEEE remains bogged down, the Wi-Fi Alliance will still go ahead with the plan to certify products in the first half of 2007. Then, when the IEEE approves a final 802.11n standard, not expected until March 2008, the alliance will conduct a second phase of testing.
Wi-Fi comes in a number of flavors, namely "b," "a" and "g" -- referring to the subsection of the technical guidelines issued by the IEEE. Most routers and networking cards these days are of the "g" variety, which speeds up wireless downloads and lets people stray farther from their routers without losing connection.
The "n" version is expected to be about five times faster, though in reality, speeds rarely reach what's promised on the box. It promises even greater reach through walls and into dead spots. Next-generation products will also use several radios to send and receive data, making them better at handling big video files.
At all levels, industry players seemed pleased with the decision to certify pre-N products.
"This announcement will give 802.11n a really big shot in the arm," said Michael Hurlston, the vice president of chipset maker Broadcom Corp.'s wireless LAN division. "We're expecting a market shift in terms of market share away from standards a/b/g and towards n. We think this accelerates that process."
In the absence of alliance-led certification, chip makers would have been on their own to make sure products were interoperable -- a process that would have required a lot of one-on-one, under-the-radar negotiations, Hurlston said.
Intel Corp. and Atheros Communications Inc., which both make wireless chipsets, expressed support for the move, as did Airgo Networks Inc.
"Rather than having these products delivered in a vacuum, the Wi-Fi Alliance said, let's impose some rigor on the market," said David Borison, director of product marketing for Airgo. "We're all competitors. At the first sign of trouble, everybody points at someone else. That's why the Wi-Fi Alliance is so important."
Dell Inc., which recently started shipping laptops with 802.11n wireless cards, and Netgear Inc., which makes 802.11n wireless routers and cards, were also in favor of certifying pre-standard products.
Interoperability will speed the adoption of new wireless products, said David Henry, director of product marketing for Netgear's consumer products division.