Is WiFi A Disruptive Technology?

from the could-be dept

I’ve always been interested in the idea of “disruptive technologies” and the fact that people usually don’t recognize them coming along until they’re too late. If you haven’t read anything on disruptive technologies, they’re technologies that, when introduced, aren’t nearly as capable as incumbent technologies – so they’re usually ignored/panned/dismissed by incumbent tech companies. However, as they get better at a faster rate than consumer demand, they hit a point at which they’re “good enough” for consumers – who switch from the incumbent technology. This usually catches the old guard by surprise – because they’re technology is still “better” in some ways – but the good enough tech is much cheaper. Now, a report has come out saying that WiFi may be a disruptive technology to 3G wireless technology that the wireless carriers are all pushing. There have been many debates about this, and it’s clear that the two technologies can be complementary in some ways. However, WiFi does pose a threat to some segment of users who the wireless carriers were targeting with their 3G networks. As WiFi technology gets better, and does more, it could become a truly disruptive technology.

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Comments on “Is WiFi A Disruptive Technology?”

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Eric says:

3D graphics hardware & SprintPCS 3G

A more striking example is in the visual simulation industry (e.g. air pilot training systems) where SGI (Silicon Graphics) used to be king of the hill of the graphics hardware. Now NVidia, ATI, etc are producing cheap 3D graphics boards for the gaming industry that are “good enough” for vis-sim apps too. Customers can spend 1000x less on PCs with these boards, which are getting better all the time — at a rate much faster than the “doubling every 8 months” rule for CPUs.

As a SprintPCS customer who used to be a Ricochet wireless user, until Metricom went belly up, I’ve been waiting for Sprint’s 3G services. Looking at their web site announcements recently, I’m a bit underwhelmed. It looks like it will be very expensive — charging by the minute, and not very fast compared to Ricochet for the next couple of years until they do even more upgrading to their networks. I’d use WiFi, except that it looks like the only way to use it is to rip off someone else’s bandwidth. Is there any other way to get WiFi access to the Internet?

Eric says:

Ready For Widespread Deployment?

I don’t understand the “rosy” comments about WiFi. Why won’t the same thing that happened to Metricom (that is, go out of business) happen to anyone who wants to put together some sort of nationwide WiFi infrastructure? It also sounds like another opportunity for Scientologists bearing wireless gifts, like the ones who ran Wireless Web Connect until they ran off with their customers prepaid account money. Probably won’t be as easy to succeed this time.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Ready For Widespread Deployment?

There are a number of difference between WiFi and Metricom, so I don’t think the comparison is all that valid. Of course, that doesn’t mean WiFi systems won’t fail for completely different reasons…

Ricochet was a centralized system run by one company who then proceeded to charge ridiculously high prices for technology that wasn’t that good. They made a marketing mistake in (1) the market they targeted (i.e., they only went after “mobile professionals” instead of pitching it as an alternative to DSL/Cable) and (2) the pricing.

WiFi, on the other hand, is more of a “ground up” phenonmenon, where many of the WiFi networks are just set up by someone who has some bandwidth and is open to sharing it. It doesn’t require a single company to run all the systems, or to get permission from local municipalities to hang boxes on lamp posts.

Of course, the way it stands right now, WiFi is a hotspot technology, and doesn’t cover wide areas. However, it’s also much faster, much more reliable, and much easier to put up an adhoc system whereever it’s needed.

Assuming that technology came about that would make it easier to set up hotspots with much wider coverage (just one possible advance), then suddenly WiFi network access could become a viable alternative to DSL/Cable. Right now it’s not… because right now you still need to have your own (or a neighbors…) DSL/Cable access to use WiFi off of.

Anonymous Coward says:

Old news...

The carriers already *know* 802.11b is diruptive; fortunatley, they know how to disrupt 802.11b back…. and it’s already happening…

Before we go any futher, you need to know that 802.11b is *very* much a “good enough” technology and that the IEEE has basically done consumers a huge diservice by letting it go forward as a standard. Of couse, it’s also important to understand that thousands of “standard” canidates are brough forth each year and that the IEEE probably put 802.11b as yet another standard that wouldn’t catch on. Unfortunatly it did catch on and in such a way that the damage (to the consumer) is probably irreversable.

Now, on to the fun bit… If you’ve followed *any* of the wireless forms/mailing lists for any length of time, you know that there are several carriers already starting to roll out 802.11b in an effort saturate the spectrum real estate. In countries like New Zealand and the UK, this is basically an unachieveable goal (but remember, that all a cellular carrier wants to do is saturate the “high demand” spots where non-carrier 802.11b would compete with 3G). In countries like Japan, Tiawan and China (where another microcell wireless architecture called PHS lives), this is an easily achieveable goal.

The end result of this is 802.11b will be relagated to the “getting rid of ugly wires in the home” problem. Folks who are trying to use it to solve the “last mile” problem are living in a state of denial. Carriers will use 802.11b to solve the “non-telecom upstart wireless data provider” problem.

Personally, I would have been much happier with the IEEE if they had concentrated on FH a little more closely instead of going foward with a “11mbps” standard the effectively ends up deliving less throughput than breezecom 1.5mps (total) FH radios (the other 802.11 standard). Co-location of radios and the map coloring problem should have been a key design criteria, not data rate. Metricom’s failure had a lot to do with the fact they didn’t own the last mile, but still needed to use it. Their continued failure will have everything to do with the closed, propritary nature of their hardware and the fact that they are not willing to do the R&D to minatureize their tranceiver to a single chip (so they can sell serverice via people’s cell phones). To understand this, all you have to do is ask yourself: “When did the internet start becomming popular?”. If you answer “1991”, you’re a moron. If you answer “when modems dropped below the $300 price point”, you’re spot on. If you don’t understand the answer to the question and its implications, perhaps you should consider a carrer change. Nokia’s rooftop system and Motorola’s Canopy system will suffer the exact same fate as Metricom (except far more slowly since they aren’t actually doing the service provision bit).

Deb says:


I dunno about disruptive, and I’m not going to wax on about the technical side BUT – where I live in Washington State (Kitsap County), the County library has just wired all their major branches with wi-fi. That means anyone with a pc/handheld pc/pda etc (with appropriate hardware) has free internet access while at the library.
I think this is beyond cool – it should get more folks into the library, and yet have fewer folks online on the *library* computers, thus freeing them up for those without access anywhere (except the library).
They did it because they wanted to get Internet access into different parts of the library but the cabling/wiring nightmare put them off – then they discovered Wi-fi and viola!
My hope is that we see more public access this way.

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