802.11n: Is there an end to the saga?

After many years of discussion and debate, the 802.11n standard still awaits final approval. What is going on and why is ratification taking so long?

Attempting to bridge the gap is the Wi-Fi Alliance. Formed in 1999, and featuring 300 wireless vendors from more than 20 countries, the Alliance, in its own words, "develops rigorous tests and conducts Wi-Fi certification of wireless devices that implement the universal IEEE 802.11 specifications. The end result leads to the confidence that both home and enterprise users need to continue to get the most out of Wi-Fi."

In the 802.11n saga, the Wi-Fi Alliance has had an increasingly prominent role to play. Back in 2004, when some manufacturers were already jumping the gun and announcing plans for draft-n equipment, the Alliance was quick to denounce those concerned, threatening to withdraw its Wi-Fi Certified status from products as a result. And in recent times, this status has taken on a new significance, for in the vacuum created by the lack of a formal, ratified standard, the Wi-Fi Alliance has stepped in and started testing and certifying draft-n wireless equipment instead. Arguing that it didn't expect the 802.11n standard to be officially approved until March of 2009, the Alliance has stepped in and provided what at first could be an interim standard, yet longer term could prove to be even more significant than that. The fact that Intel adopted a draft 802.11n standard to integrate into its Centrino Pro platform last year also points to, perhaps, the increasing irrelevance of IEEE to the standard the more it pontificates over formal approval.

Legacy

As 802.11n stands, the formal standard is clearly on the final path to official approval, and one way or another it's expected to get its final sign off in the next twelve months. But the legacy of the process could haunt IEEE for years to come. Hardware manufacturers and many in the IT industry as a whole have grown frustrated as to how, in a fast-moving industry, an evolved standard can take five years to be approved. By the point 802.11n is rubber-stamped, many manufacturers will already be looking beyond that, and perhaps looking for fresh leadership of the process as well.

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For ultimately, and perhaps damningly, when the standard does get its green light, it's almost an irrelevance, because so much of the market is happily using draft-n equipment anyway. With compatibility issues between the draft and the formal standard expected to be a lesser concern than in the past as well (although that's something the people, clearly, aren't taking for granted), a body who has done so much to help define the working standards for modern day computing has simply failed to keep up with the pace of the market it works in. And all the while, the saga of 802.11n goes on...

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