It's an age-old story in the technology business: First comes the breakthrough innovation. Then come the enhancements that compete with and sometimes marginalize the initial discovery. For the next example of this, keep an eye on Wi-Fi. Sales of the hardware that enables high-speed, wireless access to the Net from homes, offices, and airports will grow from $1.49 billion in 2003 to $2.94 billion by 2007, predicts market consultancy Infonetics Research in San Jose, Calif.
Even as this happens, though, everyone from startups to the likes of cell-phone maker Motorola (MOT) will be feverishly developing new wireless technologies that can do the jobs heretofore earmarked for Wi-Fi. "I wouldn't say that we're trying to replace Wi-Fi," says Motorola Director of Standards Realization John Barr. "But there's overlap."
So much so, in fact, that some of the new technologies could take a bite out of Wi-Fi's growth. This might take a while: The wannabes have yet to prove their worth in the marketplace, and industrywide standards for some of them still need to be agreed on, a process that's never easy or fast. Still, rivals are lining up -- and Wi-Fi had better watch out.
HOME STREAM. In homes, the biggest threat will come from a technology called ultrawideband (UWB), which allows data to be transmitted at a rate of 1 gigabit per second -- nearly 10 times the 100 megabits per second for today's fastest Wi-Fi connections. Although UWB has a much shorter range -- 30 to 60 feet, vs. 100 to 200 feet for Wi-Fi -- that could be enough for many uses. For instance, UWB could replace USB (universal serial bus) cords that now connect computers with peripherals such as a keyboard and printer.
More important, UWB could be used to stream video from a DVD player to a TV or from a PC to the stereo in the next room -- the type of digital-home jobs that companies such as chip king Intel (INTC) have earmarked for Wi-Fi. The first such products based on Motorola's UWB chips will show up in stores next Christmas, Barr predicts.
Outside the home, UWB could carve out a niche in specialized business markets. For instance, doctors and nurses could use UWB to quickly look up patients' charts and view bandwidth-thirsty digital X-rays, says Jeff Harris, director of business development for privately held General Atomics. The San Diego-based company will release its first proprietary UWB chip this year.
CITYWIDE ACCESS. More commercial and consumer applications will follow as a UWB standard is ratified by the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE), perhaps in late 2005. Overall, the market is expected to grow from zero to nearly 6 million UWB nodes embedded in various devices by 2007, according to tech consultancy In-Stat/MDR.
During this period, public Wi-Fi hotspots -- essentially, wireless networks located in cafés, hotels, and airports -- could come under attack by new data networks from the likes of Nextel (NXTL), the No. 5 wireless provider in the U.S. This month, Nextel began testing a new system built by privately held Flarion Technologies, based in Bedminster, N.J., that would offer blanket access to the Net throughout an area the size of a large city at speeds of 1.5 megabits per second -- vs. about 2 megabits per second for a typical Wi-Fi hotspot, which functions only within a small area.
Experts say Flarion's technology could become the basis for a wireless standard called 802.20, which is expected to be ratified by the IEEE by yearend. It requires the installation of special hardware at cellular-transmission sites that generally costs one-third to one-fifth as much as the gear for other advanced data networks, says Ronny Haraldsvik, senior director for global marketing at Flarion.
SPEED DEMON. Customers would then connect to the 802.20 network via special chips embedded in their mobile devices. Carriers will be able to offer unlimited access to the network for perhaps $50 a month, says Haraldsvik -- similar to what they charge for slower data networks.
Service providers could also adopt a wireless technology called WiMax -- or 802.16 -- which is expected to be pushed by the likes of Intel starting this year. Imagine a beam of bandwidth that supports data-transmission rates of up to 70 megabits per second within a 30-mile radius of a WiMax antenna. Initially, WiMax will be used by broadband providers -- such as phone companies that offer digital subscriber line (DSL) service -- for last-mile delivery of broadband to consumers' homes, says Scott Richardson, general manager of Intel's broadband wireless group.
Within two to three years, though, WiMax's beam might also track a special chip in wireless devices, Richardson says. The beam won't move at the speed of a car, so it might be tough to check e-mail while driving, says Yuanzhe (Michael) Cai, an analyst with emerging technology consultancy Parks Associates in Dallas. Still, that would only cause accidents, anyway. The technology would be best for a mobile worker who wants to check e-mail during a stop at a gas station. The combined market for 802.20 and WiMax hardware should reach about $1.5 billion by 2008, according to ABI Research, a tech consultancy in Oyster Bay, N.Y.
COMPROMISE-CHALLENGED. Besides these technologies, which could become industry standards, many new proprietary ones may surface this year. Wheels of Zeus, a privately held, Los Gatos (Calif.) company started by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of computer maker Apple (AAPL), hopes to soon release a product called wOzNet. Expected to be resold by Motorola, this specialized hardware will offer more than just Wi-Fi, says Gina Clark, vice-president for marketing and business development at wOz. It will also incorporate global positioning system (GPS) capabilities, Clark says, so people can keep track of where their children, elderly relatives, or pets may be.
Of course, these new technologies will face multiple obstacles. Many of their creators -- including Motorola and Intel in UWB -- have trouble forging the compromises necessary to set industry standards. While they bicker, consumer-electronics companies -- which always hesitate to adopt proprietary technologies -- might instead opt for Wi-Fi for many uses, says Kurt Scherf, principal analyst at Parks Associates.
After all, Wi-Fi is prevalent already: Nearly all laptops sold this year will be set up for it, and Wi-Fi's highest-possible speed should triple, to 300 megabits per second, within 18 months, predicts Craig Mathias, a principal at wireless consultancy Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. So for many consumer-electronics makers, Wi-Fi looks like a safer choice.
"ALL VAPORWARE"? Proliferation of technologies such as WiMax -- which is intended to be installed in service providers' towers and run by them -- will also depend on carrier acceptance. By comparison, Wi-Fi mushroomed because of a grassroots consumer movement. Service providers such as phone company SBC (SBC) are testing WiMax but are still undecided on its use. Thus, "there's not really a competing technology right now that could slow down Wi-Fi's momentum," says Brent Nixon, product line manager for wireless systems at networking gear maker 3Com (COMS).
If there were one, Wi-Fi equipment makers would be quick to jump on the bandwagon. At Netgear (NTGR), a major manufacturer of Wi-Fi access points, a product can go from concept to manufacturing in three months, says Chairman and CEO Patrick Lo. Not that Netgear is planning an all-out effort to release products based on any of the new technologies any time soon: In terms of competing tech, "there's nothing yet," Lo says. "For now, it's all vaporware."
Still, chances are that a few advanced products will hit the market soon. For instance, WiMax service and TVs with UWB capability could come out later this year. And soon after, consumers and businesses might be able to chose which technology to use -- Wi-Fi or one of its newer cousins. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.