You probably know that 802.11b (known simply as "b" to its friends) is the most commonly used standard for wireless mobile computing, or Wi-Fi.
But it's now threatened with displacement by faster standards such as 802.11g and 802.11a. The "b" standard is cheaper than either of the others, but "g" has some intriguing capabilities that are far from obvious.
First, let's define what we're talking about:
• 802.11b components are widely used today and have been available in various stages of development for years. This is the slowest Wi-Fi standard. It has a theoretical bandwidth of 11 Mbps (megabits per second) but real-world throughput drops as low as 4 to 5 Mbps.
• 802.11g equipment is compatible with the older 802.11b cards but runs up to five times as fast. Access points that can support both standards have started appearing this year since the technical specification for the "g" standard was ratified by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) in June.
• 802.11a components are rated as fast as "g' but use a different wireless frequency. Partly for this reason, "a" hasn't caught on to the extent of "b" and "g."
In my view, the decision facing IT executives is whether to stay with the older, well-established "b" products or move up to the newer, faster, but more expensive "g" products.
Using Multimedia May Be the Key
There's been some apathy about the higher "g" speeds among IT pros. That's because it's very unlikely that a laptop user would ever find a home page on the Web or a download from an ftp server that would saturate the bandwidth of a "b" Wi-Fi card, much less "g."
Downloading from the Internet isn't the point of "g," however. The higher speeds of "g" would only be needed if a laptop (or other "g"-equipped device) was downloading files from a local server.
The biggest files of this kind would be audio and video files. This fact opens up a world of possibilities that IT executives should take seriously:
• Audio files could include not just MP3 files but any other kind of audio material a company wants to make available to its employees, such as the latest news.
• Video files suggest video teleconferences between those with laptops and other portable devices that can easily be carried from meeting to meeting. Prerecorded video material is even more appropriate for "g" speeds, including content such as videotaped company announcements and cable TV programming.
• Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is a special case of audio material that could become truly portable if the promise of "g" speeds is realized.
Many of these multimedia capabilities require technology that's more mature before it's ready for prime time. Streaming video and VOIP applications, for example, are jerky on "g" without the addition of 802.11e. That's a quality-of-service (QoS) standard for streaming media that's expected to be ratified sometime in 2004.
The Future Is Now
But the shifting standards haven't stopped some companies from bringing out products that attempt to implement audio and video on "g" today:
• The Prismiq MediaPlayer (about $250) has PC Card slots for "a," "b," and "g" Wi-Fi cards, as well as wired Ethernet. It accepts audio and video files from a PC and streams them to a stereo receiver or TV through its standard audio/video jacks (or S-Video for better picture quality). It even picks up and plays Internet-only radio stations.
• The Linksys Wireless-B Media Adapter (about $150) is a device that's optimized to stream audio files and still pictures from a PC to a TV. Its use of "b" technology keeps it from being touted for streaming video. But the gizmo can already be connected to an Ethernet cable — and Linksys won't fail to bring out a "g" model very soon.
• The Sharp Aquos Mobile, at around $2,000, is a pricier device than either of the Prismiq or Linksys products. But the Aquos has the full functionality of a TV in the form of a 15-inch, flat-panel LCD screen that an employee can carry around. The picture and sound are currently delivered via the slower "b" technology but, like its competitors, Sharp must be planning a switch to "g" in short order.
None of today's wireless multimedia offerings can compare in speed to wired Ethernet. And without the QoS standards that are promised for "g," streaming video isn't yet good enough to impress viewers.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the possibility that your employees might soon be roaming the halls of your headquarters with portable devices that can take part in video conferences and watch prerecorded media files on demand — without wires.
My advice: Give "g" technology a serious look before simply buying whatever's the cheapest wireless product that's available to you today.