After a rough start, it looks like Draft N could be coming together. The top four laptop makers will soon be shipping products that meet a draft of the IEEE's nascent 802.11n standard for fast Wi-Fi, according to Mikc Hurlston, Broadcom's vice president of wireless LAN products. In an interview he made a few more points about the standard.
"What we've seen over the last six months is an extreme amount of development," he said. "Things are now far different from six months ago at the launch of Draft N products." It's the new level of stability that has reassured laptop makers enough that Dell, Acer Lenovo and soon HP will be shipping it.
Interoperability testing "There is better interoperability amongst chipset makers, and new levels of performance," said Hurlston. It's good enough for vendors to sign up to, he says - and the chipset maker are co-operating better.
Early Draft N products would work with those from other suppliers, but only at 802.11g speeds or less, according to tests (for instance our reviews of Netgear, D-Link, Linksys and Buffalo products). That has changed, says Hurlston: "If you buy an access point from Marvell, it will interop with our chipset at draft N speeds."
The 802.11n standard will allow some 77 possible modulation coding schemes (MCS) - some compulsory, some optional. Which gets used depends on the MCS options supported by the products, and which can be supported in a given situation. "We're seeing high data rates with MCS16, and a PHY of 270 Mbit/s, interoperating with all major chipset vendors," said Hurlston. Specifically, Broadcom has tested this with Atheros and Marvell, under the auspices of the Wi-Fi Alliance, he said.
Of course this testing may be under ideal conditions, not at extremes of range:"We haven't done a lot of range testing," he agreed, "but in our early work, we haven't seen anything that would cause us alarm"
It also requires that you are using the latest firmware. "Buffalo, Linksys and most of Netgear's products have upgraded their firmware to the latest and greatest," he said, and since Broadcom hasn't changed its chipset since April, most products should be upgradable, to the current spec, he said.
Only for SOHO? At this stage, however, Draft N is for small businesses, and homes, needing a single AP installation, he agrees. "We will see a tremendous amount of traffic in SOHO, and small business products. Larger companies will wait for the standard full standard. Till Cisco ships 80211n APs, the uptake in the enterprise will be lower."
However, the presence of draft N products in the market will put pressure on enterprise vendors: "For example, Linksys' presence has put pressure on [Linksys' parent] Cisco to do something in the enterprise."
Dell and Lenovo putting it in laptops will increase that pressure: "Given the early momentum, we may see the enterprise ahead of the standard," he says. "But only just ahead of it." .
The tipping point - 2007 Several things will happen in 2007 to make Draft N more popular. "Intel is making a lot of noise in the press about a draft 11n offering early next year. That will start moving market aggressively," said Hurlston.
The other major marketing move will be the Wi-Fi Alliance's branding of Draft N products. The Alliance hasn't branding to a draft standard before. "We can see a third to forty percent of notebooks having Draft N by the back half of 2007," he said.By the end of 2008, he believes more than half of notebooks will be shipping with Draft N cards.
Instead of a major competitor, Hurlston believes that Intel's Draft N cards will be a boon.: "We see nothing but benefit," he said, claiming a good share in the Wi-Fi provision for 802.11g laptops, and good prospects as the Wi-Fi provision for non-Intel laptops.
Broadcom is co-marketing its chips with AMD's processors, said Hurlston: "AMD is becoming a bigger part of the product offering at Dell. And the combination of an AMD processor and an Intel Wi-Fi chip simply doesn't exist."
Broadcom is also making big efforts on "embedded" Wi-Fi, .which fits in devices like cellphones and consumer electronics "Our competitors [meaning Marvell] have established footholds here but given our roadmap, we can catch up and take the lead."
To Broadcom that represents a bigger market opportunity than even Soho Draft N kit: "
Even if it's in ten percent of devices, ten percent of a billion unit market is a large number." For instance, the Nintendo DS console at 25 million, has sold half as many units as the whole laptop market, he calculated.
Broadcom has abilities in cellular baseband, Bluetooth and DVB-H, which could provide what Hurlston calls a "Cellular Southbridge" by analogy with the notrhbridge/southbridge chipsets that have simplified PC motherboard designs. .
Cellular baseband won't be integrated though: "Wi-Fi is evolving at a high rate, and cellphone manufacturers will be loathe to continually iterate the baseband. The amount of interoperability testing is extreme - so cellular guys are very cautious about iterating the cellular baseband. That stays off by itself, it remains sacred ground."
New demands for clients Embedded Wi-Fi will make new demands on clients, to use intelligence, to handle power levels and conserve battery, and also to roam quickly, as smaller devices will be more mobile. Embedded Wi-Fi also has to be small.
"A Draft N productc consumes 2W; our 4328 [embedded abg chipset] consumes 250mW," said Hurlston, "and it's in a 10mm by 10mm module."
Power and roaming may demand more intelligence on the client: "On the 4328, we've put a lot of memory on the chip. That gives us a leg up - we've been very successful in trying to differentiate ourselves on software."