Standard gear and first-mover advantage?

Which of the following moves more slowly: IEEE standard bodies or the planet's tectonic plates? While they contemplate the answer, consumers should be aware that buying pre-standard or draft-standard gear may cost them when the standard is finally ratified. Analysts point to 802.11n as the latest category at the heart of the debate on whether it is wise to buy non-certified kits. The increasingly common practice of launching pre-standard gear has been the source of contention in WiFi and WiMAX since Broadcom legitimized it with the 802.11g WiFi upgrade in 2004. The company claimed that it was risky to buy pre-standard products because they may have to be altered to gain certification and, even worse, may not be interoperable with devices using the ratified standard.

It is often the case that these dire warnings are issued by gear makers who, for one reason or another, fell behind in rolling out products based on the yet-to-be-ratified draft specifications. These warnings, however, typically fail to deter consumers from buying pre-standard gear for a simple reason: The prices of WiFi equipment have been falling, so even if a pre-standard piece of gear proves obsolete when the standard is ratified, the consumer would not typically be out of pocket for more than $100 or so.

For companies there is a distinct first-mover advantage in releasing pre-standard gear as evidenced by Broadcom, which launched pre-certified 802.11g chips in 2004. The gamble paid off, pushing the company from a rear position to the top two in WLAN silicon. (Based on its 802.11g success, it is surprising to note that Broadcom has been a bit sluggish in releasing precertified 802.11n chips, but see the explanation by a company spokesman in last week's issue to the effect that the company prefers to work with certified standards.)

Start-up Airgo offers an example of the risk for companies from moving too early. The company, a MIMO pioneer, has been aggressively shipping its pre-N chips, but these chips are not built to any standard since the 802.11n specification has not been finalized yet. A coalition of companies, led by Intel, Atehros and Broadcom, persuaded the IEEE working group to adopt their preferred specifications to 802.11n and MIMO precisely for the purpose of preventing Airgo's pre-N from becoming the de facto standard. The move will keep the growing presence of Airgo in the 802.11n market in check and will also force the start-up to re-engineer its products to be compliant with the standard when it is approved.

For more on the pre-standard gear issue:
- see this Wireless Watch analysis