Microsoft Sends Mixed Signals

Pushes for WLAN compatibility but certifies gear supporting only 802.11a

Microsoft Corp. has been delivering mixed messages about its support for new WLAN technologies, pushing for all products to be backward-compatible even while certifying gear that supports only the latest standard.

Late last month, Microsoft Wireless Architect Mike Foley announced at two wireless conferences in London that Microsoft will not grant its WHQL (Windows Hardware Quality Labs) certification to emerging 802.11a wireless LAN products that did not also support 802.11as predecessor, 802.11b.

That statement came even as Microsoft was granting WHQL certification to equipment from Atheros Communications Inc. for its WLAN components, which currently support only 802.11a, the developing standard for high-speed data communication in the 5GHz radio band. Several PC Card manufacturers, including Intel Corp., have announced their intent to use Atheros chip sets in their products.

"We have the certification, and Microsoft isnt taking it back," said Mark Bercow, vice president of marketing at Atheros, in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Foley acknowledged that Microsoft has granted certification for 802.11a-only products for current versions of its operating systems. But he said the company plans to require backward compatibility for all future versions of Microsoft desktop operating systems. The next version of Windows, Longhorn, isnt due until 2003.

The certification is important to chip and radio manufacturers competing to sell their gear to OEMs. End users, however, say WHQL certification doesnt mean as much as it once did.

"I cant remember ever buying a product or not buying a product because of a logo stamped on the box," said Kevin Baradet, network systems director of the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., and an eWeek Corporate Partner. "I dont even see it as a minimum indicator of quality any more."

Through Microsofts certification, officials at the Redmond, Wash., company said they want to make the point that all WLAN products should be backward-compatible.

"Our intent moving forward is that we will require backward compatibility—for [802.11a] radios to have [802.11b] support," Foley said. "As products are rolled out, having an a world and a b world and so on will just confuse the end user."

Combination products likely will win out in one way or another. Atheros officials said they intend to provide eventual backward compatibility but likely through the access point in the baseband rather than on the client device. Mobilian Corp. is working on a combination 802.11a/802.11b solution for PC Cards. In addition, Systemonic Inc. and Raytheon Corp. last week announced plans to co-develop WLAN products that will be upgradable to higher-speed standards via baseband and media-access-control-layer software upgrades.