Like most technologies, wireless networking is evolving at a rapid clip. Although most wireless installations this year will likely be of the 11Mbps 802.11b (Wi-Fi) variety, newer, faster versions are already superseding 802.11b. But the future of wireless isn't all about faster speeds; it's also about lower prices and easier configuration. As you might expect, Microsoft has an interest in this market.

You've probably already heard about 802.11g and 802.11a, two emerging (but incompatible) standards that eventually will bump wireless networking speeds up to 54Mbps. But 802.11g and 802.11a don't represent the fastest speeds on the horizon. The IEEE 802.11 Working Group, which oversees these wireless networking standards, is already working to ratify several new additions to the 802.11 standard, most of which will see the light of day as early as 2003. Many of these additions are necessary because of requirements in specific countries.

One of the new standards is 802.11h, which operates in the 5GHz band and targets European markets. Another new standard, 802.11i, will address the security problems inherent in today's wireless products; this spec could go live by late 2003.

The 802.11e specification—due in January 2003—will add Quality of Service (QoS) features similar to those now available on wired Ethernet connections. And an 802.11f standard will add protocols that allow data sharing between disparate systems; this standard will go live during the first half of 2003. Also becoming available soon is an 802.11d standard that regulations in certain countries require.

If this alphabet soup of updates sounds confusing, fear not; the powers that be are aware of the problems that multiple specifications cause. The IEEE 802.11 Working Group is trying to roll all the new standards into one next-generation wireless specification that will apply to countries in all markets throughout the world. The specification is called Wireless Next Generation (WNG).

Back in the current low end of the market, 802.11b, Microsoft is working with companies such as Intel to make wireless connectivity in Windows XP even easier than it is out of the box, according to reports. The company will soon begin a beta test of technology that's known as "Soft Wi-Fi," which will simplify wireless configuration and lower the price of compatible wireless hardware. The Soft Wi-Fi plan is similar to the way Winmodems (i.e., host-based modems) work, moving much of the necessary technology off a device's firmware and into Windows. The development of Soft Wi-Fi technology has three results: First, the technology becomes easier to update if a problem occurs. Second, compatible hardware is cheaper because it doesn't require expensive firmware. Third, the technology shuts out competition (unless the technology eventually opens up to other companies) because other OSs such as Linux can't work with the proprietary hardware.

Microsoft will no doubt tout the price and configuration benefits of Soft Wi-Fi, but I question the company's need to create such devices. Wi-Fi hardware, especially NICs, are already quite cheap, and most NICs can be auto-configured in XP as well. Concerns about Microsoft's behavior notwithstanding, I can't imagine why the company would make a Soft Wi-Fi product; I'm hoping to find out more at this week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC).

As I look over the list of wireless advances that will come during the next few years, I conclude that choosing a wireless standard that will be viable long-term will be difficult for consumers. In home networking scenarios, Wi-Fi (i.e., 802.11b) is still the way to go and will be for some time to come. And because Wi-Fi-compatible hardware is so inexpensive, don't be too concerned that your system speed is losing ground if you notice faster solutions appearing during the next year.