Big Bets on Wireless Networks in 2011

Enterprises will test 4G throughout 2011, but WiFi and 802.11n will be of paramount importance as more wireless-only devices invade the corporate network.

eWEEK is betting big on the cloud in 2011, approaching the cloud as a unifying tenet of a large share of our coverage over the course of the year. But bridging users to the cloud-and the copious bounty of applications and services delivered therein-requires connectivity, particularly for the legion of users armed with a new generation of mobile devices that don't have ethernet ports. That's right- 2011 will be a huge year for wireless networking.

4G-no matter how you define it-is going to dominate the news and the public mindshare throughout the year, as Sprint launches WiMax in major markets, T-Mobile grows its HSPA+ offerings and Verizon and AT&T both launch their LTE initiatives in the United States. As the carriers grow their 4G networks, however, I suspect enterprise adopters won't be able to count on the availability of 4G speeds in all the places that matter to them, as long as 4G coverage remains in isolated islands rather than concentrated swaths. For 2011, 4G will be a "nice to have," and users will certainly show up with a handful of devices that support various 4G flavors, but 4G won't be an operational necessity through the year. So for enterprises and 4G, 2011 will be a testing and appraisal year.

WiFi, on the other hand, will only continue to grow in importance for almost every enterprise. 802.11n-ready equipment has been available for several years, ratified as a standard for more than a year, and enterprise products are entering their fourth generation of development already. Speeds are blazingly fast and WiFi companies are delivering better equipment with smarter management, adaptability and reliability in the face of interference, noise and large client pools.

In the new year, I'll be closely tracking a few WiFi-related issues. Specifically, I'll be interested in whether WiFi Direct will confer any operational benefits for enterprise networks and users, or whether the point-to-point WiFi technology will wind up being an Intrusion-Detection-alarm-tripping nuisance.

I also think arguments around enterprise WiFi architecture will continue to gain steam. Motorola's announcement of its WiNG5 architecture-moving more network intelligence toward the edge-is a dramatic technological shift from a company that was previously heavily invested in keeping the network intelligence in the core. I suspect more WiFi companies will see the light, and that Aerohive was on to something by putting network intelligence back at the AP (access point), and that removing the central controller altogether from the data path removes the biggest performance bottleneck and frees the APs to serve more clients and more traffic effectively. And better performance at the edge will be paramount as users continue to flood enterprise networks with WiFi-enabled iPads, Android phones and BlackBerrys.

Speaking of Blackberry, RIM's forthcoming PlayBook tablet looms large for the company, which is taking a great stab to retain relevance and mindshare for mobile consumers and enterprise adopters alike, as the Playbook is both a new hardware form factor and a new mobile OS (the latter based on RIM's QNX acquisition). Hazarding a guess, I'd say the PlayBook will be a moderate success at best as the requirement to tether to a BlackBerry smartphone for e-mail and enterprise connectivity is shortsighted and limiting.

But I suspect the OS and software will be a major winner, which is ultimately more important to the future of the company. I've liked what I've seen from RIM in terms of developer outreach over the last year, and I suspect QNX will pay off big to attract more of that core audience. And better apps will equal more consumer appeal for later BlackBerry devices running QNX, whatever the form factor.