eWEEK at 25: Wi-Fi Has Gone from Extravagance to Mission-Critical Enabler

As eWEEK looks back at its 25-year history, eWEEK Labs analysts considered the most important innovations in their respective coverage areas. For Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia, the choice was a no-brainer: Wi-Fi, a "gargantuan success story."

On Christmas Day 2000, I had to tear myself away from family festivities to get back to Foster City, Calif., the then-home of both eWEEK Labs and PC Magazine Labs (I worked for PCMag at the time). I needed to untangle-in time for publication-the mysteries that kept popping up during my first 802.11b wireless LAN interoperability test. I had found that post-certification firmware upgrades to some of the products under test were breaking out-of-the-box interoperability, one of the core elements that would help drive the future success and growth of the wireless technology.

Soon after 802.11b products appeared in the marketplace in 1999, the WiFi Alliance, which was known as the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance at the time, started certifying products for interoperability. Most of the products I was testing-which consisted solely of access points and laptop PC Cards-had already garnered certification, but after-the-fact enforcement was a little lax, and a couple of vendors were quietly breaking interoperability via upgrades after getting the seal of approval.

The potential for Wi-Fi was already undeniable at that point in time: The use of open spectrum for connectivity and falling silicon prices provided a low barrier of entry for hardware makers and software developers bringing with them new ideas on how untethered connectivity could be consumed. Already, expensive first-generation products aimed at a corporate audience were being met in the market with a new wave of less-expensive equipment geared toward consumers and home users, bringing with them the promise that a Wi-Fi client provided at work could also work at home with little fuss.

Without a reasonable guarantee of interoperability, however, that potential would have gone out the window, which is one of the reasons why the WiFi Alliance was so instrumental to the early maturation of the technology. And, over time, that organization has also proven important for its willingness to draw lines in the sand delineating the growth spurts Wi-Fi would undergo.

Before the article I referenced earlier hit the newsstands, word surfaced that a group of researchers at the University of California had poked holes in Wi-Fi's WEP encryption, quickly changing the focus on Wi-Fi from interoperability to security. The WEP vulnerabilities had been known among IEEE 802.11 members for several months, and planning was already under way to remedy the flaws-even though a majority of Wi-Fi customers weren't using WEP at all.

But customers-particularly business customers-needed solutions fast to secure existing networks or to be able to continue in-progress deployments.

The interim fix, TKIP, which was designed to work on existing hardware, held up as an effective solution for an astounding six years until Martin Beck and Erik Tews announced a successful attack against it in 2008. The respite left plenty of time for the full, AES-based security solution (802.11i) to be developed. And the WiFi Alliance added both TKIP (WPA) and AES (WPA2) to their interoperability testing program before the solutions were finalized, effectively putting an end to late-stage development squabbles and quickening the release of the technologies into the marketplace.

eWEEK invited me to join the Labs team in the wake of the initial WEP findings, first as a contributor and then as an analyst, to follow and document the early growing pains of the technology and those who deployed it. And in the intervening years, I've borne witness to the explosion in popularity of the technology, watching it grow from extravagance for laptop users into a mission-critical enabler for data, voice and video to a vast array of endpoints and devices. The technology even serves to cover up the inadequacies of other, more expensive and proprietary wireless technologies (I'm looking at you, AT&T).

I'd call that a gargantuan success story. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to use Wi-Fi to watch an NBA game on my iPhone.

Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at agarcia@eweek.com.