Why are manufacturer's pushing draft 802.11n?

A finalized 802.11n standard is, despite what vendors might claim, a long way off.

A finalized 802.11n standard is, despite what vendors might claim, a long way off.  With this in mind, why are vendors rushing to get equipment based on the draft out of the door?

Given the troubles that WiFi LAN has experienced over the years, it's amazing that it has become as popular as it is really.Take a deep breath, realize that you don't need to be at the bleeding edge of technology and keep your credit card in your wallet!  I guess there aren't that many people who like drilling holes and pulling cables any more.  They'd rather put up with patchy coverage, poor transfer speeds and weak encryption that 802.11b and g have currently offered.  Even with a standard that's as mature as 802.11g, there are still issues that vendors are either unable or unwilling to address (consistent speed and interoperability with other brands being the two that irritate the end user the most). 

I'm surprised that vendors are so eager to manufacture and release and support equipment that's based on an early draft standard.  What surprises me more is how bad a reception this gear is receiving.  Independent tests carried out highlight a huge number of issues with draft 11n gear, ranging from poor performance, weak coverage and poor compatibility with existing 802.11b/g equipment.  On top of this add the fact that current drivers and firmware are immature to say the least, prices are high and there's no guarantee that draft 11n gear will be upgradable to or even compatible with the finalized 802.11n standard.

Looking at the market I can see three reasons for vendors to be shipping equipment based on a draft standard (putting aside the whole "we were first" thing):

  • Beta testing.  Early adopters are lab rats that are being used to iron out the bugs as the standard progresses.  These people aren't just beta testers, they're beta testers willing to put money down. 
  • Draft 802.11n gear might have a number of downsides, but 801.11g stuff isn't all that good either, and the hope of better speed/greater range is all that customers need to be convinced to buy.
  • Consumer tech is driven by marketing.  802.11g has been around for too long now and it's time for a change.  Bonus points for vendors that argue that releasing draft 802.11n gear is in the interests of the customer.

None of these reasons sounds all that good to me but after a lot of thought they're still the best that I have been able to come up with.  I expect that if pushed, vendors will be hard pressed to come up with any better reasons.

By now you've probably guessed what my advice for anyone thinking about installing a WiFi LAN based on draft 802.11n gear is going to be.  That's right.  Take a deep breath, realize that you don't need to be at the bleeding edge of technology and keep your credit card in your wallet.  I've been trying to convince myself for some time now to jump onto the bandwagon, but I just can't do it.  A LAN is an important thing and they can be hard enough to keep operational at times without adding dodgy, half-baked draft equipment into the mix. 

But what if you're sold on it?  Here's my advice for anyone who wants to go down the 11n route:

  • Buy all your gear (router, desktop cards and notebook cards) from the same manufacturer.  This will help minimize compatibility issues.
  • Upgrade your firmware and drivers regularly to patch up bugs and security issues as soon as they are available.
  • Don't deploy a draft 802.11n network anywhere that's mission-critical, because you might end up without a network.
  • Don't expect current draft 802.11n to play nicely with 802.11b/g gear. 
  • Remember that backward-compatibility on paper is different to real-life backward-compatibility.
  • Don't be surprised if your network gear is nothing more than a paperweight in a year or so.  Do not expect that draft 802.11n is a guaranteed path to a finalized 802.11n.
  • Expect trouble.  Maybe lots!


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