If you're reading this story over Wi-Fi, thank a department store designer.
It was retail remodeling that spurred NCR, a venerable cash-register company, to find out how it could use newly opened frequencies to link registers and mainframes without wires. Its customers wanted to stop drilling new holes in their marble floors for cabling every time they changed a store layout.
In 1985, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to leave large blocks of spectrum unlicensed and let vendors build any kind of network they wanted as long as they didn't keep anyone else from using the frequencies. NCR jumped at the chance to develop a wireless LAN, something that didn't exist at the time, according to Vic Hayes, a former engineer at the company who's been called the Father of Wi-Fi.
Most important, for anyone today who wants to buy an inexpensive Wi-Fi router and connect almost any portable device to it, NCR decided from the beginning that its WLAN technology should become an industry standard. The group that would develop that standard, called IEEE 802.11, first met 25 years ago Thursday.
As it reaches that milestone, 802.11 is branching out into new areas like long-range, low-power networks, better performance in crowded places and more precise location sensing.
NCR was drawn to open standards by years of frustration with IBM's control of computing through its mainframes, Hayes said. Like other vendors at the time, NCR constantly had to adapt its products to work with whatever IBM built. "We were tired of being a follower," he said.
Out of that initial impulse grew one of the most successful examples of open standards in action. Wi-Fi, which got its name from the industry group that certifies 802.11 products for interoperability, has gone into more than 10 billion devices and is used in home and business networks and public hotspots around the world. Even many mobile operators with their own licensed frequencies rely on Wi-Fi to better serve subscribers.
NCR first tried to get the WLAN standardized as a wireless form of Token Bus, a local data network designed for manufacturing automation. Piggybacking on that group would be easier than getting approval for a whole new standard, Hayes said. But after a couple of years, it turned out that Token Bus couldn't be adapted to wireless. That's when the 802.11 Wireless LAN Working Group was born.
The new standard took almost seven years to complete.
"In the beginning ... there was no research done on the characteristics of radio used indoors," Hayes said. Factors like signal reflections off walls and ceilings were new phenomena that hadn't existed for outdoor radios.
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