Apple Computer not only introduced an industry first notebook with a 17-inch display, it also became the first major company to deploy as yet unapproved technology for Wi-Fi access.
Although the aircraft aluminum packaging, the screen size, the backlit keyboard and the 800Mbps Firewire port are innovative, the use of what is called IEEE 802.11g is just plain daring. It underscores Apple's willingness to take a calculated risk on a nascent technology that has to date not been ratified as a standard by the IEEE Wi-Fi committee.
Approval of IEEE 802.11g is expected. It has the unique feature of using the same bandwidth as B -- 2.4GHz -- thus making it backward compatible with B while giving the same performance of the far faster IEEE 802.11a standard which runs at 55Mbps.
There are two levels of risk in deploying a G product, according to Brian Grimm, a spokesperson for the Wi-Fi Alliance.
"The spec can change and G has not been certified for interoperability. If we learned one thing from our testing from IEEE 802.11a, interoperability is not a given," Grimm said.
Yet, Apple CEO Steve Jobs in his keynote made it a point to say that G was selected for its backward compatibility with B and said "A is not compatible with anything else."
While the G device which will be built into the 17-inch Powerbook, dubbed Extreme Airport by Apple, can communicate with any B or G access point, it will not be compatible with IEEE 802.11a access points which run on a 5.1Ghz band.
To date most Wi-Fi chip manufactures, Atheros Communications Inc. and Intel Corp. in particular, have come out in support of the A standard and are taking a wait-and-see approach on G. The only silicon manufacturer in support of G is Intersil Corp., also a major supplier.
There are no significant deployments of G, however, either in public access hot spots or on corporate campuses. Those locations for the most part are in many cases upgrading to the A standard. If the rollout of A continues on its current pace, Powerbook users may find themselves in a year or two unable to access a WLAN. The only solution would be if the network administrators had the foresight to deploy dual-mode access points with both A and B technology.
Less risky is the introduction of a USB printer port that will attach to an external Airport access point on a notebook. Once connected, any user on the network will be able to print out wirelessly from his or her notebook.
In addition to Airport Extreme, Bluetooth is also integrated into the 17-inch Powerbook. Bluetooth is also part of the 12-inch Powerbook and Airport Extreme will be a US$99 option on that notebook. Both notebooks also have antennas built into the screen.
The widescreen Powerbook will ship in the US in February and the 12-inch version by the end of the month. Details for an Australian launch have yet to be released.