Wi-Fi Alliance tough talk is good news

Aggressive marketing can poison the market - so the Wi-Fi Alliance's tough stance will benefit us all

With a flurry of press releases, Belkin -- whom we must not call the cable people -- has announced "Pre-N" Wi-Fi kit. The idea is you can buy this stuff and be happy that it will work perfectly well when we enter the bold new world of 802.11n fast wireless networking.

At the same time, the Wi-Fi Alliance issued a strong public warning to its vendors that any attempt to release wireless networking components that claim 802.11n goodness in advance of the standard actually existing will be slapped down by the removal of their certification. That's based on the experience of 802.11g, which saw a swarm of 'almost there' components on the market that didn't play well with others. As a result, the market was fragmented, people were reluctant to invest and the value of the standard -- the Wi-Fi brand -- was considerably diminished.

On the face of it, Belkin's ploy is harmless marketing. It makes no claims to be 802.11n, merely to be ready to work with it when it arrives. As it is a sure-fire certainty that the 802.11n standard will include backwards-compatibility with the existing Wi-Fi alphabet soup, Belkin is absolutely correct. The fact that all other makers of 802.11a/b/g equipment could say the same is neither here nor there. That's one of marketing's jobs -- making a difference where there is no difference.

It gets a little stickier when you notice that what Belkin is selling does indeed include a new technology likely to be included in 802.11n -- multiple antennas. This should be an entirely good thing: it will be a sad day when hardware companies stop trying out new ideas. The experience everyone gets from real-life deployment of an innovation is worth many camels when it comes to deciding what should be in a standard and what excluded.

Yet Belkin's moves are disingenuous. It must surely know the result of combining a reference to 802.11n with technology that will be in the standard. When people come to buy online -- or find themselves in the hands of that rare salesman who is either uninformed or less than scrupulous -- the natural connection will be made. They think they'll be buying into the future. Once again, the value of the Wi-Fi brand will be diminished.

Those who jump the gun will shoot themselves in the foot, and we'll all be caught in the crossfire. Wireless is particularly prone to this: we see it happening in ultrawideband, where the standards process has actually fallen apart in the face of people going it alone, and it threatens ZigBee. It doesn't seem to matter that the history of this idea is full of footless corpses: marketing departments have much more testosterone than memory.

So we applaud the Wi-Fi Alliance's moves to slap down those who'd blur the standards. It is in itself savvy marketing by the brand managers -- and the only language those people understand.