A Look Ahead to Possible Wi-Fi Industry Trends in 2011

Many of the trends from the past year will carry over into 2011 and continue to impact the industry, while a few new developments are poised to radically alter the landscape. Here are my projections for some of the developments we should expect to see in the coming year.
  1. Wireless as the Primary Enterprise Access Medium – spurred by large-scale adoption of 802.11n equipment, more organizations and employees will increasingly rely on Wi-Fi networks for the bulk of their work. Although a complete shift to Wi-Fi is unlikely except for a minority of organizations aggressively seeking expense reduction, most organizations will realize that the benefit of a scaled-down switching infrastructure, eliminating unused switch port capacity, and deploying greater capacity Wi-Fi networks to handle mobile workers.

  2. Smart-AP Architectures Begin to Emerge from Market Leaders – just as 2010 saw established competitors challenge the common wireless controller architecture, market leaders will look to begin migrating to a more distributed architecture with smart APs. As industry experts continue to recognize that controller features can now cost-effectively be implemented in smart APs, market leaders will be forced to react and keep pace, or face continuing erosion of market share to innovative up-and-comers. However, the transition for large established equipment manufacturers will not be easy, having to support current customers with a deployed base of controllers as well as customers still running legacy autonomous access point architectures. Watch for product feature sets to begin migrating back into the smart APs in 2011, but don’t hold your breath for a viable large-scale controller-less solution, as ditching the controller will be tough given their wealth of feature that need to be migrated. Also, implementing coordination among smart APs will be limited to small groups of APs upon first release to ensure product stability. Watch for the large vendors to position these smart APs in parallel to existing controllers to prevent erosion and cannibalization of existing revenue streams, targeting smaller SMB/SOHO deployments for initial product releases while continuing to recommend controllers for larger installations.

  3. Consumer Device Adoption in the Enterprise Becomes the Norm – enterprise Wi-Fi networks are a bit of an anomaly, having gained broad adoption in the consumer space long before enterprise. As such, Wi-Fi is viewed more as a utility by employees, who more commonly expect to connect any device to any network to get connected. Underscoring a major societal and cultural trend of the connected lifestyle, enterprises will be forced to support consumer-grade devices on corporate networks. This will present challenges for IT departments to provide secure and controlled access to corporate data. Mobile device management (MDM) solutions will increasingly be sought after to manage the great diversity in client platforms. Wireless network engineers will need to take care to architect solutions to alleviate poor consumer device performance and ensure mission-critical devices and applications achieve the required QoS and SLA required. Watch for organizations to take baby steps in support of these devices while they develop broader strategies for device funding, liability, and security compliance. Support may initially be limited to Internet and/or thin-client access to corporate applications and data, with broader access following strategy definition and procurement of management solution.

  4. Mobile Commerce Leads to More Retail Hotspots – if 2010 was the year of mobile advertising, 2011 will be the year of mobile commerce and greater consumer interaction. Retailers are looking to keep pace in highly competitive markets and adjust to shifts in consumer behaviors, specifically targeting mobile commerce applications. Wi-Fi hotspots have long been a staple of cafés and bookshops, but will see increasingly broad adoptance among other retailers looking to provide a mechanism for customer engagement while in-store where they have the most influence at the product location. Wi-Fi will serve as a foundation for mobile commerce and marketing applications due to its pervasive presence in consumer smartphones and the lack of adequate 3G/4G cellular data network coverage within many brick-and-mortar facilities. Retailers will need to be careful to ensure the content is engaging, relevant, and provides a great customer experience. Watch for more hotspots to spring up throughout 2011.

  5.  Emergence of Smart Meter, M2M, and Sensor Networks – wireless sensor networks have long been confined to the realm of university research and limited deployment mainly in the structural engineering field. However, this technology is maturing to the point where mass-market adoption is within the realm of possibility. Use-cases in the enterprise for smart buildings, energy efficiency, and better facilities monitoring and management coupled with commercial products for the consumer market with products to enable a connected home (thermostats, televisions, blu-ray players, home entertainment and set-top boxes, etc.) will bring smart meter, machine-to-machine (M2M), and sensor networks into the mainstream. Manufacturing costs are reaching low enough levels to allow product pricing to reach inflection points which could drive mass consumption by consumers. Enterprises, on the other hand, will be slower to adopt this technology due to investment in current systems, and deployment will likely be reliant on the rebound of the economy to spur new facility construction. Also watch for government funded economic stimulus projects to make increasing use of this technology. Sensor networks hold the potential to radically shift how Wi-Fi networks operate, shifting from human interaction networks to largely automated systems that require higher levels of stability and consistent network operation. Wi-Fi engineers should be able to proactively identify these shifts and manage network changes to provide greater availability and capacity.
What trends will you be watching for in 2011?