TCS Daily

Wi-Fi Side-By-Side

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 20, 2005 12:00 AM

I love Wi-Fi.  And I've written -- as long ago as three years, and as recently as last month -- about the way technologies like Wi-Fi are leading to the reconfiguring, and repopulation, of public spaces.  Here's the latest example, from Wired News:

Co-founded by graphic designer Mike Matas and programmer Wil Shipley, the company's first title, Delicious Library, was launched in November 2004. It generated $250,000 worth of sales in its first month, and the company has a crowded, popular booth here at Macworld.

But its four main employees meet every day at the popular Zoka coffee shop in Seattle's university district.

It's cheap rent and a fun environment," said Matas. "We go down there every day with our laptops and work. It's an incredible place. They have two or three of the top baristas in the country (the awards are on the wall). We pay our rent by buying coffee. ... They love us. We're some of their best customers.

As well as creamy lattes, the coffee shop offers wireless Internet access and big, bench-like tables that several people can gather around. Often, Delicious Monster's entire seven-person staff will work there.

"When we started, there was just two of us working in an office we set up in Wil's house, Matas said. It lasted a week. When there's just two of you, you can't stay in one room all day.

The coffee house is full of students and several other programmers, most of whom are contractors. Its collegiate atmosphere provides inspiration, not distraction. It's like a big library, Matas said. We dont people-watch. We work. We work eight hours a day."

We'll see more and more of that sort of thing, and it won't be limited by Wi-Fi. A while back, I got a Verizon Wireless card for my laptop. Broadband access at 500 kbps is promised for my area in the next few months, but actually the so-called "National Access" at 80-100 kbps isn't bad at all.  It's faster than dialup, and it works from anywhere, pretty much.  (A couple of weeks ago I even surfed and blogged from a moving car -- while riding, not driving, I hasten to add -- in the remoter reaches of North Alabama for more than an hour without losing a connection).  Since I've found myself stuck, lately, in various doctors' offices, etc., where there's no Wi-Fi, it's been a real godsend. 

I'm sure I'll like it better when it goes broadband.  Evan Coyne Maloney, a filmmaker who travels a lot, has the service and loves it:  "Literally within a minute of plugging the card into my PowerBook, I was online and loving it. It's fast. Not super-fast, but pleasantly fast."  And MSNBC's Gary Krakow certainly agrees, writing "If it all cost the same wouldnt you be interested in portable, high-speed, wireless Internet connection instead of being tethered to a Wi-Fi network at home?"

Well, maybe. Verizon is certainly pushing this service as an alternative to Wi-Fi in pretty much those terms:

"For the business customer, especially the laptop guy, it's all about speed and ubiquity," Mr. Stratton added. "I think this really puts a hurt on the entire Wi-Fi concept for the business user.

But much as I love the idea, and the service I've already got, this won't fly.  Glenn Fleishman, who's certainly not hostile to EVDO services, offers a number of reasons why Verizon needs to come back to earth here, reasons having to do with speed and pipeline issues.  But I think there's more to it than that, and part of it is the difference between top-down and bottom-up.

One of the really cool things about the Wi-Fi explosion is that it was a bottom-up phenomenon.  The technology spread rapidly, and it's improving rapidly -- so much so that Verizon's comparison of its EVDO service with 802.11b is already obsolescent, as newer, faster and more secure flavors of 802.11 keep appearing.  I've been hearing about 3G/EVDO for years while cell companies planned its introduction, but in the interim Wi-Fi has exploded on its own.  Top-down approaches can seldom match bottom-up approaches for speed and adaptability.

Second is the question of energy, both consumed and emitted.  My Verizon card uses up battery power at a noticeably higher rate than my Wi-Fi card.  That's no surprise, given the much higher power levels that cellular transmissions require.  That also means, of course, that I'm exposed to more electromagnetic radiation from the Verizon card than from Wi-Fi.  That's not a big deal, as I'm certainly not a paranoid where EMF radiation is concerned, but it's certainly not a plus.  And nobody wants shorter battery life.

I suppose we can't blame Verizon for the hype.  But, in fact, it seems likely that services like EVDO and Wi-Fi will coexist comfortably for quite a while, because they're fundamentally different products.  That's fine with me, since I'm all for diversity, technological and otherwise.  I hope that the Verizon folks will realize that, rather than getting carried away with efforts to "bury" Wi-Fi under EVDO.  With multiple approaches, everybody wins.


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