For those of us who see wireless LANs rapidly displacing wired Ethernet as the client access protocol of choice, there was a rather disturbing article in the NYT highlighting the high-profile Wi-Fi meltdowns at various tech conferences over the past year. Most of us are familiar with some of those embarrassing moments, such as the one depicted in the article of a frustrated Steve Jobs trying to demo a new iPhone, where a large gathering of tech geeks overloads a conference room's WLAN leaving the poor speaker frantically typing and swiping trying to show off their latest Internet-dependent product.
What bothered me about this piece is the sense of resignation; that Wi-Fi overload is just a fact of life in our hyper-connected age. This quote sums up the lassitude:
The problem is that Wi-Fi was never intended for large halls and thousands of people, many of them bristling with an arsenal of laptops, iPhones and iPads. Mr. Calacanis went to the extreme at the Web 2.0 Summit by bringing six devices to get online -- a laptop, two smartphones and three wireless routers.
So I want to issue a challenge to all enterprise WLAN equipment vendors: pick a big tech gathering in the next few months and use it as a technology showcase. I've written several features in the past year looking at competing WLAN architectures, cell topologies and RF technologies, and invariably each vendor touts theirs as the most scalable and reliable. Well, come on Cisco, Aruba, Meru et. al. Can you handle the Jobsian challenge? Can you save Steve the embarrassment of asking everyone to turn off their Wi-Fi adapters so he can make it through his product rollout? Let's see if a single channel architecture is really superior to the micro cell consensus.
The gauntlet has been thrown. IW is sponsoring Interop in May, what about doing a bake off in different convention halls to see whose technology can handle the load of a thousand Web-starved geeks. It might even give smaller players like Aerohive and Ruckus a chance to stand out from the crowd. I don't agree with the founder of Mariette Systems (quoted in the Times piece) that "Wi-Fi is meant for homes and other small spaces with more modest Internet demands." That's just consigning wireless to it's historical position of being a convenient adjunct to wired. If WLANs are really ready to displace Ethernet in the office, let's see its suppliers tackle the toughest of problems.