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What are these guys really selling?

Without having run my own tests, and with both Nitro XM and Afterburner not yet in their first release, I'm reluctant to draw any which-product-is-better conclusions from what I saw. Instead, I'll offer my view on this whole fixation with throughput number inflation.

The race for higher throughput is allegedly being made in the name of every consumer's desire to have multiple video streams wirelessly beamed to all rooms of their homes. Supposedly the demand is there, just waiting for technology to make it all possible.

In reality, the 2.4GHz band where 802.11g lives is a lousy place to stream a video signal. Heck, as tons of folks who went out and bought wireless networking stuff this past Christmas found out, it can be hell to even get data networking running reliably! There are simply too many gadgets competing for too little spectrum and higher throughput doesn't do anything to solve this problem.

Another problem that higher throughput doesn't solve is product returns. Every networking product maker I talk to says their wireless products have the highest return rates. The products are not coming back because they're too slow, but because they don't work at all, don't work reliably, or are too hard to get working. Once again, higher throughput doesn't solve any of these problems. (And think of this return rate problem the next time you see a press release from a wireless chip manufacturer trumpeting all the chips they've sold...)

So why is everyone selling throughput? A better question might be why are you buying? Because you, dear consumer, have shown the industry that when they put a bigger number on the box, you'll make those boxes fly off the shelves! In an industry where the normal driver - business - has kept its collective wallet clamped shut for the past three years, manufacturers are just trying to stay in business. And since - fueled by easy money from mortgage cash-out refinancings - consumers have kept buying, that's where networking companies (and chip manufacturers that supply them) are aiming their marketing engines.

It will be interesting to see if manufacturers change their focus given the hopeful signs that businesses are once again starting to buy. But the impression I got from my conversations at the show was that pumped-up 11g was for multimedia streaming and not for expanding the capacity of heavily used office WLANs - at least that's what the current pitch is. This is probably because business won't touch non-standard products unless there's a very compelling story that outweighs the risk. But consumers are less concerned with standards compliance, and so far, folks have been just lapping this stuff up.

So think of those poor little streaming video bits, yearning to deliver the latest Simpsons' episode to your 42 inch plasma. Isn't all this wireless speed the way to get them safely to their destination?

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