If you had told most people in the year 2000 that by the time George W. Bush ran for reelection they would be able to connect to the Net wirelessly, they would have called you näively optimistic. If you had predicted that they could do so at 100 times the speed of a dialup connection while sipping coffee at Starbucks (SBUX ) or sitting on their luggage waiting for a plane, they would have called you nuts. So now that you can do all that, what's next for the hottest technology du jour?
Anyone who claims to know for sure is probably wrong. But that hasn't stopped the speculation about Wi-Fi's blue-sky future. By 2009, estimates Craig Mathias, president of Ashland (Mass.)-based wireless consultancy Farpoint Group, the technology will be in half of all homes on the Net at any speed, up from 12% today. Mathias also expects it to be in 50% of corporate offices, vs. 8% last year. But that's just a hint of where Wi-Fi's real promise lies, at least according to its promoters.
Within a decade, they predict, it'll be integrated into myriad networks, devices, and services. So complete will this transformation be, says Latina Connelly, director of strategy for IBM's (IBM ) aptly named Pervasive Computing division, that you won't need to buy the extra hardware you need now to set up a Wi-Fi network. The only clue that you're Wi-Fi-empowered will be the capability you suddenly have to beam streaming video from your PC to your TV without any cables.
That should open a new era in mobile computing, made possible by combining Wi-Fi with the new cellular-data networks the biggest phone companies are rolling out. Once those arrive, you'll be able to check e-mail on your personal digital assistant (PDA) or cell phone even as you walk beyond the 150-foot range of your office Wi-Fi antenna, or hotspot, and out into the parking lot, where a cellular data network will take over.
Starting this summer, phone company SBC Communications (SBC ) will let customers in some markets download special software onto their laptops or PDAs that will enable them to switch between Wi-Fi and a new, more ubiquitous cellular data network as they wander in and out of the range of hotspots, says SBC Chief Technology Officer Ross Ireland. Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between phone companies Verizon (VZ ) and Vodafone (VOD ), will introduce a similar, though faster, service in many markets this year, says Jim Straight, Verizon Wireless' vice-president for multimedia services.
IBM is already ahead of the game, with software for laptops and PDAs that makes it possible to roam between Wi-Fi, satellite, and advanced wireless networks such as those implemented by Verizon Wireless and Cingular, a joint venture between SBC and BellSouth (BLS ). The Cingular software automatically switches Web access from one network to another and in the future may also automatically select the cheapest and most efficient network for particular applications, such as video, says Connelly. Another piece of software will consolidate charges for these different networks onto one bill, she says.
ON CALL, EVERYWHERE.
The next step will be to build Wi-Fi capability into cell phones, which should eventually make it possible to use Wi-Fi to make phone calls over the Web. At Nortel Networks (NT ), this capability, called voice over Wi-Fi, has shaved 57% off of employee calling-card bills, says Chief Information Office Albert Hitchcock, citing a three-month experiment last year involving 5,000 employees.
Cell phones combining Wi-Fi with the carriers' wireless technologies will come out in large numbers within the next year: Already, an alliance of No. 2 mobile-phone maker Motorola (MOT ), equipment maker Avaya (AV ), and broadband hardware maker Proxim (PROX ) is testing a dual-mode phone that can make calls both over a cellular network and, via Wi-Fi, over the Net. Every other cell-phone maker is close behind.
Even on equipment that offers Wi-Fi functionality exclusively -- such as phones customized for very specific jobs, such as those used in hospital emergency rooms -- Wi-Fi will be more integrated with information systems. Wi-Fi devices for nurses made by phone maker SpectraLink (SLNK ) already are being combined into a system that pages a nurse whenever a patient presses the "call" button. That allows nurses more mobility, so they don't have to sit at their nursing stations to receive messages.
In the future, this handheld might also dip into databases containing patient charts, so the nurses can make quick decisions about patient care, says John Elms, president and CEO of SpectraLink in Boulder, Colo.
BOUNCING OFF THE WALLS.
Wi-Fi is also being incorporated in consumer devices, from the fridge to the gaming console to the printer. Since Wi-Fi captures the exact location of anyone who is using a hot spot, a mobile worker who needs a printer could ask the corporate network to find the nearest one to the café he or she is in, says Larry Birenbaum, a senior vice-president at Cisco (CSCO ), the world's largest maker of Wi-Fi hardware.
Some of these future capabilities are, for now, strictly the stuff of geek lore. In a few years, experts think, special software -- already available but not widely used -- will allow for so-called mesh networking. With mesh, instead of going directly from the family PC to the stereo, a downloaded song would hop from the PC to the Wi-Fi-enabled TV to the fridge and thence to the stereo -- dodging interference from walls and increasing the speed of the transmission, says Rick Rotondo, vice-president for technical marketing at privately held MeshNetworks in Maitland, Fla., whose investors include networking gear maker 3Com (COMS ).
These leaps could happen at 100 to 200 megabits per second when a new Wi-Fi standard called 802.11n is ratified by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers), probably by late next year. Such speeds -- roughly 100 times that of current Wi-Fi -- could lead to new applications, such as relaying video from a PC wirelessly to a flat-screen TV on the wall. The first TVs using the new standard should come out in 2006, says Tony Grewe, director of strategic marketing for the Client Systems Group at Wi-Fi chipmaker Agere (AGRA , AGRB ).
Wi-Fi will also enable new consumer services. For instance, instead of turning in a camera's memory stick to have photos developed, customers could simply beam the photos from a Wi-Fi-enabled digital camera onto a store's equipment, says Martin Dunsby, vice-president of operations at wireless consultancy InCode Telecom in San Diego. For businesses, enabling such extra convenience might cost as little as $200.
Of course, Wi-Fi must surmount many challenges before it reaches nirvana -- particularly as alternative wireless technologies proliferate. Some analysts see lots of promise in ultrawideband (UWB) technology for such digital home tasks as streaming a song from a PC to the stereo. UWB offers speeds of more than 100 megabits per second. It's also cheaper and uses much less power.
Chances are, though, that by the time a lot of these other technologies arrive, Wi-Fi will have a commanding lead. Assuming, of course, that behind these blue-sky plans is a lot more than a king-size dose of wishful thinking.
By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.