Newly-designed Compaq Presario notebook and desktop computers will sport sleek looks and be outfitted to burn CDs and DVDs, play games and view multimedia files. The notebooks will also provide integrated wireless LAN technology for the nascent 802.11g standard, according to HP.
The new Compaq Presario 2500 and 2100 series notebooks were designed to work with wireless networks based on the draft specification of the 802.11g standard, HP said. The integration of 802.11g technology made the new Presarios better suited for sharing files, viewing digital media and playing computer games.
Like Wi-Fi devices that use the popular 802.11b standard, 802.11g wireless devices operate in the 2.4GHz band. However, 802.11g devices support much faster data transfer rates than those using the 802.11b standard, 54M bps (bits per second) as opposed to 11M bps.
While attractive to consumers, HP's decision to provide integrated wireless LAN technology for the 802.11g standard in the new notebooks raises questions about whether the company is dooming its customers to compatibility problems when the official 802.11g standard is published later this year.
In February, the non-profit Wi-Fi Alliance announced that it would begin certifying 802.11g products after the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) approved the final standard for 802.11g later in 2003.
The alliance was in the process of developing an 802.11g interoperability test program based on the most recent draft of the standard, communications director at the Wi-Fi Alliance, Brian Grimm, said.
HP's new Presario notebooks would not be certified by the Alliance, which could mean headaches for HP customers who want to connect to networks that use 802.11g-compliant products, Grimm said.
"What we've learned in all of our testing for 802.11b and 802.11a is that there were a lot of products that didn't operate with one another," he said. "Even today, after three years, a significant number of 802.11b products that are prepared for testing don't work out at first," he said.
When standards were available, months of testing were often needed to work out interoperability issues and obtain certification, Grimm said.
While consumers who bought the new Presarios exclusively for home use might not be affected by the non-certified 802.11g technology, problems were more likely to occur when users tried to connect to wireless hotspots at places such as coffee shops, at work or while travelling, he said.
The problem of non-certified devices caught the attention of research firm Gartner, that warned companies in March to hold off on making investments in 802.11g wireless LAN technology until products could be properly certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance.
Jumping on the 802.11g bandwagon might result in interoperability problems with other 802.11g devices, as well as older 802.11b wireless LAN technology, Gartner said.
Given the maturity of the IEEE draft specification for the 802.11g standard, however, HP felt that changes that would affect the wireless hardware in its new laptops were unlikely, as was the risk of any serious interoperability problems, product manager at HP, Matthew Wagner, said.
Changes to the specification that were not reflected in HP's implementation of the draft standard could be addressed in driver or firmware updates to the product, he said.
HP knew that there was no guarantee that more serious implementation problems would not arise from differences between the draft specification and the final, but felt it was a risk worth taking.
"There's no such thing as no risk," Wagner said. "In many cases like this, you have to make a balanced judgment between the final standards and the time to market of important technology introduction. We felt the risk was low and manageable."
Getting the products out early was important to HP customers who "value the leading edge of technology", Wagner said.
The problem of companies pushing non-certified 802.11g technology was greater in the consumer market than in the market for enterprise wireless products, Grimm said.
Most enterprise-class vendors and corporate technology buyers were waiting for the official standard and for Wi-Fi certified products before making use of the technology, he said.
Some 802.11g technology currently being sold may be certified after the fact.
Consumers with hardware that was eventually certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance could bring their machines into compliance through a software (or "firmware") update - or not, Grimm said.
"Unless (the devices) are certified, a firmware upgrade may or may not solve issue," Grimm said. "The only way to know is if the product is certified."
In addition, not all wireless vendors offer firmware upgrades, he said.
The Wi-Fi Alliance hopes to have the published IEEE standard in hand by June and begin certifying devices by July, Grimm said.
In the meantime, consumers were encouraged to check the Capabilities label for any wireless technology they purchase. That label would indicate what data transfer rate the device was certified to handle, he said.
Both of the new products could be purchased directly from HP or through Built for You kiosks at participating retailers, HP said.