Wi-Fi 6 Is A Stupid Branding Idea

You’ve probably seen recently that the Wi-Fi Alliance has decided the rebrand the forthcoming 802.11ax standard as “Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6”, henceforth referred to as “Wi-Fi 6”. This branding decision happened late in 2018 and seems to be picking up steam in 2019 as 802.11ax comes closer to ratification later this year. With manufacturers shipping 11ax access points already and the consumer market poised to explode with the adoption of a new standard, I think it’s time to point out to the Wi-Fi Alliance that this is a dumb branding idea.

My Generation

On the surface, the branding decision looks like it makes sense. The Wi-Fi alliance wants to make sure that consumers aren’t confused about which wireless standard they are using. 802.11n, 802.11ac, and 802.11ax are all usable and valid infrastructure that could be in use at any one time, as 11n is 2.4GHz, 11ac is 5GHz, and 11ax encompasses both. According to the alliance, there will be a number displayed on the badge of the connection to denote which generation of wireless the client is using.

Except, it won’t be that simple. Users don’t care about speeds. They care about having the biggest possible number. They want that number to be a 6, not a 5 or a 4. Don’t believe me? AT&T released an update earlier this month that replaced the 4G logo with a 5G logo even when 5G service wasn’t around. Just so users could say they had “5G” and tell their friends.

Using numbers to denote generations isn’t a new thing in software either. We use version numbers all the time. But using those version numbers as branding usually leads to backlash in the community. Take Fibre Channel, for example. Brocade first announced they would refer to 16GB fibre channel as “Gen 5”, owing to the fifth generation of the protocol. Gen 6 was 32GB and so on. But, as the chart on this fibre channel page shows, they worked themselves into a corner. Gen 7 is both 64GB and 256GB depending on what you’re deploying. Even Gen 6 was both 32GB and 128GB. It’s confusing because the name could be many things depending on what you wanted it to mean. Branding doesn’t denote clear information.

Subversion of Versions

The Wi-Fi Alliance decision also doesn’t leave room for expansion or differentiation. For example, as I mentioned in a previous post on Gestalt IT, 802.11ax doesn’t make the new OWE spec mandatory. It’s up to the vendors to implement this spec as well as other things that have been made option, as upstream MU-MIMO is rumored to become as well. Does that mean that if I include both of those protocols as options that my protocol is Wi-Fi 6.1? Or could I even call it Wi-Fi 7 since it’s really good?

Windows has had this problem going all the way back to Windows 3.0. Moving to Windows 3.1 was a huge upgrade, but the point release didn’t make it seem that way. After that, Microsoft started using branding names by year instead of version numbers. But that still caused issues. Was Windows 98 that much better than 95? Were they both better than Windows NT 4? How about 2000? Must be better, right? Better than Windows 99?1

Windows even dropped the version numbers for a while with Windows XP (version 5.1) and Windows Vista (version 6.0) before coming back to versioning again with Windows 7 (version 6.1) and Windows 8 (version 6.2) before just saying to hell with it and making Windows 10 (version 10.0). Which, according to rumor, was decided on because developers may have assumed all legacy consumer Windows versions started with ‘9’.

See the trouble that versioning causes when it’s not consistent? What happens if the next minor revision to the 802.11ax specification doesn’t justify moving to Wi-Fi 7? Do you remember how confusing it was for consumers when we would start talking about the difference between 11ac Wave 1 and Wave 2? Did anyone really care? They just wanted the fastest stuff around. They didn’t care what wave or what version it was. They just bought what the sticker said and what the guy at Best Buy told them to get.

Enterprise Nightmares

Now, imagine the trouble that the Wi-Fi Alliance has potentially caused for enterprise support techs with this branding decision. What will we say when the users call in and say their wireless is messed up because they’re running Windows 10 and their Wi-Fi is on 6 still? Or if their cube neighbor has a 6 on their Wi-Fi but my Mac doesn’t?2

Think about how problematic it’s going to be when you try to figure out why someone is connecting to Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) instead of Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). Think about the fights you’re going to have about why we need to upgrade when it’s just one number higher. You can argue power savings or better cell sizes or more security all day long. But the jump from 5 to 6 really isn’t that big, right? Can’t we just wait for 7 and make a really big upgrade?

Tom’s Take

I think the Wi-Fi Alliance tried to do the right thing with this branding. But they did it in the worst way possible. There’s going to be tons of identity issues with 11ax and Wi-Fi 6 and all the things that are going to be made optional in order to get the standard ratified by the end of the year. We’re going to get locked into a struggle to define what Wi-Fi 6 really entails while trying not to highlight all the things that could potentially be left out. In the end, it would have been better to just call it 11ax and let users do their homework.

  1. You’d be shocked the number of times I heard it called that on support calls ↩︎
  2. You better believe Apple isn’t going to mar the Airport icon in the system bar with any stupid numbers ↩︎

Generation Lost

I’m not trying to cause a big sensation (talking about my generation) – The Who

GenTiltedNaming products is an art form.  When you let the technical engineering staff figure out what to call something, you end up with a model number like X440 or 8086.  When the marketing people get involved at first, you tend to get more order in the naming of things, usually in a series like the 6500 series or the MX series.  The idea that you can easily identify a product’s specs based on its name or a model number is nice for those that try to figure out which widget to use.  However, that’s all changing.

It started with mobile telephones.  Cellular technology has been around in identifiable form since the late 1970s.  The original analog signals worked on specific frequencies and didn’t have great coverage.  It wasn’t until the second generation of this technology moved entirely to digital transmission with superior encoding that the technology really started to take off.  In order to differentiate this new technology from the older analog version, many people made sure to market it as “second generation”, often shortening this to “2G” to save syllables.  When it came time to introduce a successor to the second generation personal carrier service (PCS) systems, many carriers started marketing their offerings withe moniker of “3G”, skipping straight past the idea of third generation offering in favor of the catchier marketing term.  AT&T especially loved touting the call quality and data transmission rate of 3G in advertising.  The 3G campaigns were so successful that when the successor to 3G was being decided, many companies started trying to market their incremental improvements as “4G” to get consumers to adopt them quickly.

Famously, the incremental improvement to high speed packet access (HSPA) that was being deployed en masse before the adoption of Long Term Evolution (LTE) as the official standard was known as high speed packet downlink access (HSPDA).  AT&T petitioned Apple to allow their carrier badge on the iPhone to say “4G” when HSPDA was active.  Even though speeds weren’t nearly as fast as the true 4G LTE standard, AT&T wanted a bit of marketing clout with customers over their Verizon rivals.  When the third generation iPad was released with a true LTE radio later on, Apple made sure to use the “LTE” carrier badge for it.  When the iOS 5 software release came out, Apple finally acquiesced to AT&T’s demands and rebranded the HSPDA network to be “4G” with a carrier update.  In fact, to this day my iPhone 4S still tells me I’m on 4G no matter where I am.  Only when I drop down to 2G does it say anything different.

The fact that we have started referring to carrier standards a “xG” something means the marketing is working.  And when marketing works, you naturally have to copy it in other fields.  The two most recent entries in the Generation Marketing contest come from Broadcom and Brocade.  Broadcom has started marketing their 802.11ac chipsets as “5G wireless.”  It’s somewhat accurate when you consider the original 802.11 standard through 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, and now 802.11ac.  However, most wireless professionals see this more as an attempt to cash in on the current market trend of “G” naming rather than showing true differentiation.  In Brocade’s case, they recently changed the name of their 16G fibre channel solution to “Gen 5” in an attempt to shift the marketing message away from a pure speed measurement (16 gigabit) especially when starting to put it up against the coming 40 gigabit fibre channel over Ethernet (FCoE) offerings coming from their competitor at Cisco.

In both of these cases, the shift has moved away from strict protocol references or speed ratings.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  However, the shift to naming it “something G” reeks quite frankly.  Are we as consumers and purchases so jaded by the idea of 3G/4G/5G that we don’t get any other marketing campaigns?  What if they’d call it Revision Five or Fifth Iteration instead?  Doesn’t that convey the same point?  Perhaps it does, but I doubt more than an handful of CxO type people know what iteration means without help from a pocket dictionary.  Those same CxOs know what 4G/5G mean because they can look down at their phone and see it.  More Gs are better, right?

Generational naming should only be used in the broadest sense of the idea.  It should only be taken seriously when more than one company uses it.  Is Aruba going to jump on the 5G wireless bandwagon?  Will EMC release a 6G FC array?  If you’re shaking your head in answer to these questions, you probably aren’t the only one.  Also of note in this discussion – What determines a generation?  IT people have trouble keeping track of what constitutes the difference between a major version change and a point release update.  Why did 3 features cause this to be software version 8.0 but the 97 new features in the last version only made it go from 7.0 to 7.5?  Also, what’s to say that a company doesn’t just skip over a generation?  Why was HSPDA not good enough to be 4G?  Because the ITU said it was just an iteration of 3G and not truly a new generation.  How many companies would have looked at the advantage of jumping straight to 5G by “counting” HSPDA as the fourth generation absent oversight from the ITU?

Tom’s Take

My mom always told me to “call a spade a spade.”  I don’t like the idea of randomly changing the name of something just to give it a competitive edge.  Fibre channel has made it this far as 2 gig, 4 gig, and 8 gig.  Why the sudden shift away from 16 gig?  Especially if you’re going to have to say it runs at 16 gig so people will know what you’re talking about?  Is it a smoke-and-mirrors play?  Why does Broadcom insist on naming their wireless 5G?  802.11a/b/g/n has worked just fine up to now.  Is this just an attempt to confuse the consumer?  We may never know.  What we need to do in the meantime is consider holding feet to the fire and ensuring that consumers and purchasers ensure that this current naming “generation” gets lost.