The chilling feeling of a Wi-Fi draft

With 802.11n approval stretching into the future, an interim standard might seem useful. It's a stamp of failure

We've never seen anything quite as ugly as the logo the Wi-Fi Alliance has chosen for its latest standard, 802.11n Draft 2.0. Normally, such designs are inconsequential and meaningless, but in this case the collision of colours and styles in the logo reflects the chaos behind the standard. Even the basic idea is hard to grasp — what is the meaning of conformity to a draft that's already under revision? The last round in the approval process generated Draft 2.0, but also generated over 3,000 individual comments about aspects that need attention. There's a reason the standard is still two years from completion: it's not finished.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has lost control of the process it is supposed to safeguard. It cannot guarantee that the certified Draft 2.0 equipment will work with the final version of 802.11n. It cannot guarantee upgradeability, either in theory or practice. In the past, the presence of the Wi-Fi logo meant that the standard certified was finished and that in one or 10 years' time, you could buy more equipment to the same standard with full interoperability. Draft 2.0 is a stopgap of unknown duration: it will vanish when 802.11n is finally ready.

So why bother? The manufacturers are in charge, and they want to consume their cake without losing a crumb. We're supposed to see the Wi-Fi logo and think no further — and if we end up having to buy entirely new equipment in 2009, there'll be no tears shed. That's an abdication of responsibility towards the user, especially given the importance of proper standardisation in creating a mass market for wireless networking in the first place.

It gets worse. One of the unique characteristics of wireless networking is that what you do can affect random people. If 802.11n proper proves to be incompatible with Draft 2.0, what will happen if two adjacent and independently run base stations, one on 802.11n and the other on Draft 2.0, interfere with each other? This generation of wireless has much greater range and uses many more simultaneous frequencies than previously: the chance of interference is consequentially much higher.

In practice, most people won't choose to buy 802.11n Draft 2.0: it'll come as standard in their laptops. And then they'll be sold compatible gateways and routers. The problems that follow will be not of their making, but will be theirs to sort out. A shameful legacy is in the making.