For about six months, I've had this idea of constructing a kind of taxonomy of the wireless market, something like the analyses I've done in the past of the fast-access market and other tech investing opportunities. I've even started a few times. But I've never finished that wireless-world column because it's turned out to be an idea so big that I can't get my hands around it in a single column -- or even a two- or three-part column.
There's voice wireless, data wireless, fixed wireless, office wireless, home wireless, facility wireless, 2G, 2.5G, 3G, TDMA, CDMA, GSM, wireless security -- you get the idea.
So I'm going to be realistic and do this in a lot of little chunks. Investors don't need grand visions, after all, but specific investing opportunities. From time to time, I'll try to knit together a cohesive overview of these exploding markets.
got a lot of press because of its
decision to spin off its efforts in three slower-growing areas: its PBX switches, its
cabling business and its enterprise LAN division. Good idea. The market agreed -- after trading was stopped briefly, to allow the market to digest the news -- and the share price responded with a 10-point jump.
There was more good news from Lucent last week, but it got buried in the coverage of the upcoming spinoff. Lucent, which has for some time had a presence in the local-area network wireless market with its very good
system, rolled out its new
wireless LAN products. They're solid products -- well designed, well integrated, priced right.
But the vision Lucent brings to the wireless networking market is ultimately going to be more important than the individual products in the Orinoco series. And while it's hard for any new product line to have a significant bottom-line impact on an entity as large as Lucent -- with revenue this fiscal year (ending Sept. 30) pushing $40 billion -- Orinoco could be a key technology platform for Lucent over the next few years.
Today, the story behind Orinoco; tomorrow, the far-reaching vision beyond the product line.
Wireless networking is playing into several key trends: the move towards notebook PCs, the explosion in home networks and the boom in fast-access Net connections.
I've been using wireless LANs in my offices for about four years. For desktop PCs, it doesn't make that much difference. But once you join what my son calls the "Notebook Generation," you get hooked on wireless LANs, and fast. In a home, wireless networking makes even more sense given the difficulty of retro-wiring a typical house for a LAN. Our frequent moves also argue for not making that substantial investment in pulling wire into existing homes, but instead going wireless. Needless to say, wireless networks are perfect for apartment dwellers.
There have been compromises, though. Existing lower-end wireless LAN systems have topped out at about 2 megabits per second (Mbps), about a fifth of the speed of standard wired Ethernet -- and just a 50th the speed of fast Ethernet. (Standard Ethernet networks rarely deliver the full 10-Mbps speed of the spec, but it's a fair comparison because 2-Mbps wireless Ethernet LANs rarely deliver much over 1.6 Mbps themselves.)
In practice, that hasn't mattered much. Give me 1.6 Mbps on a wireless, always-connected notebook I can carry anywhere in the office -- to meetings, to the library, to the tech shop -- vs. 10 Mbps but only at the end of a wire, and I'll always choose the wireless option. Both still seem more or less instantaneous for retrieving files, printing, sending email and accessing the Web.
A second problem has been the lack of interoperability among wireless LAN products from different vendors. The classic Ethernet 802.11 standard was ignored in developing current wireless LAN products, so once you bought into one vendor's system, you stayed there -- or fielded a crop of machines that couldn't talk with each other.
So moving to a real 11-Mbps wireless standard is an important step. And developing to a standard supported by multiple vendors is an even bigger step. Presto: the new IEEE Ethernet 802.11B spec, currently supported by most of the important wireless LAN players, including Lucent,
Wireless LANs aren't yet quite plug-and-play, but they're getting close.
Higher-end systems, such as Lucent's WaveLAN and
, have been solid performers on the office LAN level for years. They've been fast, reliable ... and expensive.
Now, with the 802.11 generation of wireless LAN products, Lucent and its allied vendors have cut prices sharply: You can today buy an Orinoco PCMCIA card to plug into your notebook for about $150, street price. Plus, you can buy the required RG-1000 home hub and network-gateway device -- the box which connects to your main PC, or to an existing wired LAN, with which all those PCMCIA-card-equipped notebooks communicate -- for about $250 to $300. (Orinoco cards for desktop PCs are also available for about $150.)
Suddenly wireless local-area networking is price-competitive
performance-competitive with wired LANs.
To be sure, the price per machine of wired LANs is dropping, too, with good-quality network cards for desktop PCs selling for as little as $30 (though wired LAN PCMCIA cards for notebooks cost about as much as the new Orinoco-generation wireless cards). But that ignores the considerable cost of installing cable to all the places you want to plug in those wired PCs.
When you fold in that "sunk cost" in on-premises LAN wiring, wireless LANs look even better.
Tuesday: How Lucent and friends plan to put you online everywhere.
Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, Seymour was long Lucent, although holdings can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are current or recent consulting clients of Seymour Group. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at