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.
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.
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?
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.