I just noticed that the Wi-Fi Alliance announced a new spec for Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of referring to technology by the standard, not by a catch term that serves as a way to trademark something, like Pentium. Anyway, this updated new standard for wireless communications was announced on January 5th at CES and seems to be an entry in the long line of embarrassing companies that forget to think ahead when naming things.
Standards Bodies Suck
Let’s look at what’s included in the new release for Wi-Fi 6. The first and likely biggest thing to crow about is uplink multi-user MIMO. This technology is designed to enhance performance and reduce latency for things like video conferencing and uploading data. Essentially, it creates multi-user MIMO for data headed back the other direction. When the standard was first announced in 2018 who knew we would have spent two years using Zoom for everything? This adds functionality to help alleviate congestion for applications that upload lots of data.
The second new feature is power management. This one is aimed primarily at IoT devices. The combination of broadcast target wake time (TWT), extended sleep time, and multi-user spatial multiplexing power save (SMPS) are all aimed at battery powered devices. While the notes say that it’s an enterprise feature I’d argue this is aimed at the legion of new devices that need to be put into deep sleep mode and told to wake up at periodic intervals to transmit data. That’s not a laptop. That’s a sensor.
Okay, so why are we getting these features now? I’d be willing to bet that these were the sacrificial items that were holding up the release of the original spec of 802.11ax. Standards bodies often find themselves in a pickle because they need to get the specifications out the door so manufacturers can start making gear. However, if there are holdups in the process it can delay time-to-market and force manufacturers to wait or take a gamble on the supported feature set. And if there is a particular feature that is being hotly debated it’s often dropped because of the argument or because it’s too complex to implement.
These features are what has been added to the new specification, which doesn’t appear to change the 802.11ax protocol name. And, of course, these features must be added to new hardware in order to be available, both in radios and client devices. So don’t expect to have the hot new Release 2 stuff in your hands just yet.
A Marketing Term By Any Other Name Stinks
Here’s where I’m just shaking my head and giggling to myself. Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 includes improvements for all three supported bands of 802.11ax – 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz. That means that Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 supersedes Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, which were both designed to denote 802.11ax in the original supported spectrums of 2.4 and 5GHz and then to the 6GHz spectrum when it was ratified by the FCC in the US.
Let’s all step back and realize that the plan to simplify the naming convention of the Wi-Fi alliance for marketing has failed spectacularly. In an effort to avoid confusing consumers by creating a naming convention that just counts up the Wi-Fi Alliance has committed the third biggest blunder. They forgot to leave room for expansion!
If you’re old enough you probably remember Windows 3.1. It was the biggest version of Windows up to that time. It was the GUI I cut my teeth on. Later, there were new features that were added, which meant that Microsoft created Windows 3.11, a minor release. There was also a network-enabled version, Windows for Workgroups 3.11, which included still other features. Was Windows 3.11 just as good as Windows for Workgroups 3.11? Should I just wait for Windows 4.0?
Microsoft fixed this issue by naming the next version Windows 95, which created a bigger mess. Anyone that knows about Windows 95 releases know that the later ones had huge new improvements that made PCs easier to use. What was that version? No, not Windows 97 or whatever the year was. No, it was Windows 95 OEM Service Release 2 (Win95OSR2). That was a mouthful for any tech support person at the time. And it showed why creating naming conventions around years was a dumb idea.
Now we find ourselves in the mess of having a naming convention that shows major releases of the protocol. Except what happens when we have a minor release? We can’t call it by the old name because people won’t be impressed that it contains new features. Can we add a decimal to the name? No, because that will mess up the clean marketing icons that have already been created. We can’t call it Wi-Fi 7 because that’s already been reserved for the next protocol version. Let’s just stick “release 2” on the end!
Just like with 802.11ac Wave 2, the Wi-Fi Alliance is backed into a corner. They can’t change what they’ve done to make things easier without making it more complicated. They can’t call it Wi-Fi 7 because there isn’t enough difference between Wi-Fi 6 and 6E to really make it matter. So they’re just adding Release 2 and hoping for the best. Which will be even more complicated when people have to start denoting support for 6GHz, which isn’t universal, with monikers like Wi-Fi 6E Release 2 or Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 Plus 6E Support. This can of worms is going to wiggle for a long time to come.
I sincerely hope that someone that advised the Wi-Fi Alliance back in 2018 told them that trying to simplify the naming convention was going to bite them in the ass. Trying to be cool and hip comes with the cost of not being able to differentiate between minor version releases. You trade simplicity for precision. And you mess up all those neat icons you built. Because no one is going to legitimately spend hours at Best Buy comparing the feature sets of Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and Wi-Fi 6 Release 2. They’re going to buy what’s on sale or what looks the coolest and be done with it. All that hard work for nothing. Maybe the Wi-Fi Alliance will have it figured out by the time Wi-Fi 7.5 Release Brown comes out in 2025.