I read a curious story this weekend based on a supposed leak about the next iPhone, currently dubbed the iPhone 111. There’s a report that the next iPhone will have support for the forthcoming 802.11ax standard. The article refers to 802.11ax as Wi-Fi 6, which is a catch branding exercise that absolutely no one in the tech community is going to adhere to.
In case you aren’t familiar with 802.11ax, it’s essentially an upgrade of the existing wireless protocols to support better client performance and management across both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Unlike 802.11ac, which was rebranded to be called Wi-Fi 5 or 802.11n, which curiously wasn’t rebranded as Wi-Fi 4, 802.11ax works in both bands. There’s a lot of great things on the drawing board for 11ax coming soon.
Why did I say soon? Because, as of this writing, 11ax isn’t a ratified standard. According to this FAQ from Aerohive, the standard isn’t set to be voted on for final ratification until Q3 of 2019. And if anyone wants to see the standard pushed along faster it would be Aerohive. They were one of, if not the, first company to bring a 802.11ax access point to the market. So they want to see a standard piece of equipment for sure.
Making pre-standard access points isn’t anything new to the market. Manufacturers have been trying to get ahead of the trends for a while now. I can distinctly remember being involved in IT when 802.11n was still in the pre-standard days. One of our employees brought in a Belkin Pre-N AP and client card and wanted us to get it working because, in his words, “It will cover my whole house with Wi-Fi!”
Sadly, we ended up having to ditch this device once the 802.11n standard was finalized. Why? Because Belkin had rushed it to the market and tried to capitalize on the fervor of people wanting fast connection speeds. The AP only worked with the PCMCIA client card sold by Belkin. Once you started to see ratified 802.11n devices they were incompatible with the Belkin AP and fell back to 802.11g speeds.
Belkin wasn’t the only manufacturer that was trying to get ahead of the curve. Cisco also pushed out the Aironet 1250, which had detachable lobes that could be pulled off and replaced. Why? Because they were shipping a draft 802.11n piece of hardware. They claimed that anyone purchasing the draft spec hardware could send in the lobes and get an upgrade to ratified hardware as soon as it was finalized. Except, as a rushed product the 1250 also consumed lots of power, ran hot, and generally had very low performance compared to the APs that came out after the ratification process was completed.
We’re seeing the same rush again with 802.11ax. Everyone wants to have something new when the next refresh cycle comes up. Instead of pushing people toward the stable performance of 802.11ac Wave 2 with proper design they are going out on a limb. Manufacturers are betting on the fact that their designs are going to be software-upgradable in the end. Which assumes there won’t be any major changes during the ratification process.
Cupertino Doesn’t Guess
One of the major criticism points of 802.11ax is that there is not any widespread adoption of clients out there to push us to need 802.11ax APs. The client vs. infrastructure argument is always a tough one. Do you make the client adapter and hope that someone will eventually come out with hardware to support it? Or do you choose to instead wait for the infrastructure to jump up in speed and then buy a client adapter to support it?
I’m usually one revision behind in most cases. My home hardware is running 802.11ac Wave 2 currently, but my devices were 11ac capable long before I installed any Meraki or Ubiquiti equipment. So my infrastructure was playing catchup with my clients. But not everyone runs the same gear that I do.
One of the areas where this is more apparent is not in the Wi-Fi realm but instead in the carrier space. We’re starting to hear that carriers like AT&T are deploying 5G in many cities even though there aren’t many 5G capable handsets. And, even when the first 5G handsets start hitting the market, the smart money says to avoid the first generation. Because the first generation is almost always hot, power hungry, and low performing. Sound familiar?
You want to know who doesn’t bet on non-standard technology? Apple. Time and again, Apple has chosen to take a very conservative approach to introducing new chipsets into their devices. And while their Wi-Fi chipsets often seen upgrades long before their cellular modems do, you can guarantee that they aren’t going to make a bet on non-standard technology that could potentially hamper adoption of their flagship mobile device.
A Logical Approach
Let’s look at it logically for a moment. Let’s assume that the standards bodies get off their laurels and kick into high gear to get 802.11ax ratified at the end of Q2. That’s just after Apple’s WWDC. Do you think Apple is going to wait until post-WWDC to decide what chipsets are going to be in the new iPhone? You bet your sweet bandwidth they aren’t!
The chipset decisions for the iPhone 11 are being made right now in Q1. They want to know they can get sufficient quantities of SoCs and modems by the time manufacturing has to ramp up to have them ready for stores in October. That means you can’t guess whether or not a standard is going to be approved in time for launch. Q3 2019 is during the iPhone announcement season. Apple is the most conservative manufacturer out there. They aren’t going to stake their connectivity on an unproven standard.
So, let’s just state it emphatically for the search engines: The iPhone 11 will not have 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, support. And anyone trying to tell you differently is trying to sell you a load of marketing.
The Future of Connectivity
So, what about the iPhone XII or whatever we call it? That’s a more interesting discussion. And it hinges on something I heard in a recent episode of a new wireless podcast. The Contention Window was started by my friends Tauni Odia and Scott Lester. In Episode 1, they have their big 2019 predictions. Tauni predicted that 802.11ax won’t be ratified in 2019. I agree with her assessment. Despite the optimism of the working group these things tend to take longer than expected. Which means Q4 2019 or perhaps even Q1 2020.
If 802.11ax ratification slips into 2020 you’ll see Apple taking the same conservative approach to adoption. This is especially true if the majority of deployed infrastructure APs are still pre-standard. Apple would rather take an extra year to get things right and know they won’t have any bugs than to rush something to the market in the hopes of selling a few corner-case techies on something that doesn’t have much of an impact on speeds in the long run.
However, if the standards bodies prove us all wrong and push 11ax ratification through we should see it in the iPhone X+2. A mature technology with proper support should be seen as a winner. But you should see them move telegraphed far in advance with adoption of the 11ax radios in the MacBook Pro first. Once the bigger flagship computing devices get support it will trickle down. This is just an economic concern. The MacBook has more room in the case for a first-gen 11ax chip. Looser thermal tolerances and space considerations means more room to make mistakes.
In short: Don’t expect an 11ax (or Wi-Fi 6) chip before 2020. And if you’re betting the farm on the iPhone, you may be waiting a long time.
I like the predictions of professionals with knowledge over leaks with dubious marketing value. The Contention Window has lots of good information about why 802.11ax won’t be ratified any time soon. A report about a leaked report that may or may not be accurate holds a lot less value. Don’t listen to the hype. Listen to the people who know what they’re talking about, like Scott and Tauni for example. And don’t stress about having the newest, fastest wireless devices in your house. Odds are way better that you’re going to have to buy a new AP for Christmas this year than the hope of your next iPhone support 802.11ax. But the one thing we can all agree on: Wi-Fi 6 is a terrible branding decision!
- Or I suppose the XI if you’re into Roman numerals ↩︎