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Before Wi-Fi Can Go Mainstream

It won't achieve the status it deserves until it overcomes several obstacles -- some doozies -- now keeping it stuck in a techno-limbo

Early 2004 has been the season of Wi-Fi hope and hype. At January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the buzz was everywhere as gadget makers and technology companies trotted out TVs, stereos, cameras, speakers, and boomboxes designed to take advantage of wireless fidelity's short-range-radio functionality. Also known as Wi-Fi, this nascent technology promises transmission of data, including songs and movies, at sizzling speeds. Cell-phone and telecom companies have recently announced big deals to share -- and thus tie together -- Wi-Fi hotspot networks across the country. And more corporations are deciding it's time to cut the cord and turn on office Wi-Fi networks.

So why, despite all that, does Wi-Fi feel like a technology that's here but hasn't quite arrived? Could be because, except for rapid growth in the number Wi-Fi access points that individuals can tap into, the revolution has been stuck in techno-limbo, with progress coming mainly in fits and starts. While Wi-Fi is available in more and more places around the country, many customers at Starbucks (SBUX ) or Borders (BGP ) may not be aware of the service, despite in-store promotions.