Wi-Fi Is Hot--But Manufacturers Are Cautious

We love our Wi-Fi, but we aren't going to be seeing it built into a broad range of consumer electronics anytime soon.

Those are the conclusions of a couple of recent studies about the increasingly ubiquitous wireless ethernet networking technology. One, a public opinion survey backed by the obviously partisan Wi-Fi Alliance trade group, found that people would rather forgo Starbucks for a year or see their local sports team lose badly than give up Wi-Fi.

However, a study by the research firm In-Stat found that integration of Wi-Fi into consumer electronics was "hit or miss," In-Stat analyst Gemma Tedesco says.

"Handheld games and gaming consoles are really the only categories that are embracing embedded Wi-Fi on a large scale," Tedesco adds.

She pointed out that the high-end version of Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii, both slated to ship later this month, will have embedded 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. Microsoft didn't built Wi-Fi into its Xbox 360, but offers an 802.11a/b/g USB adapter as a $100 option. Sony's PlayStation Portable and Nintendo's DS also have built-in Wi-Fi.

A Waste of Wi-Fi?

However,Tedesco said she found that in other consumer electronics categories, from media players and digital cameras to set-top boxes and digital TVs, embedded Wi-Fi was not widely present--and where it was, she said, it wasn't always very useful.

"Some of the vendors have added it without enabling a large amount of functionality," Tedesco said.

She noted that some consumer electronics vendors are using Wi-Fi to replace cables--for example, to enable cable-free image transfers from digital cameras to PCs or printers. But other technologies such as wireless USB may prove more efficient for this purpose.

Tedesco said that she expected Wi-Fi to be a useful feature for portable media players. "But we didn't find too many devices in that space with Wi-Fi," she said. Vendors cited digital rights management and quality-of-service issues as the reason for not including Wi-Fi in media players.

Interest in built-in Wi-Fi may increase once the 802.11n standard for fast Wi-Fi is adopted, she said. "For set-top boxes and digital TVs, vendors would love to have the speed that [802.11]n is hoping for."

We Want Our Wi-Fi

While consumer electronics devices are holding off on wireless, the general public is increasingly enamored of it, the Wi-Fi Alliance's survey found.

The survey of 549 adults aged 18 and over from homes with broadband Internet access found that nearly nine out of ten would rather go without Starbucks for a year than give up their Wi-Fi connection. (The survey report didn't specify what was being connected.) Similarly, the survey found eight out of ten would rather see their home team suffer a big loss than go without Wi-Fi for a week.

"The survey shows the cultural affinity that Americans have for Wi-Fi," says Karen Hanley, senior director of marketing and membership for the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Hanley too believes that 802.11n's superior bandwidth will drive Wi-Fi's inclusion in living-room devices. The standard is still in development, but the Wi-Fi Alliance has said it will begin performing interoperability testing for pre-802.11n devices based on the next draft of the standard, which is expected to appear in January. However, it will likely be late spring before the Alliance can certify the first products based on the next draft.

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