The Road to the All-Wireless Office

By Keerti Melkote, Blog Contributor
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Since the time Aruba was founded back in 2002, there's been one question that has come up repeatedly over the last decade.

The question is - when will the all-wireless office become a reality?

My answer to this question has changed over the last decade tracking the evolution of enterprise Wi-Fi. Here is a quick tour.

2002 – The all-wireless office was the vision on which the company was formed. However, the technology was in its early stages and we were still using PCMCIA Wi-Fi cards in our laptops to go wireless. 802.11b which was the first popular Wi-Fi standard barely allowed a few Mbps of shared wireless throughput. So beyond the vision of an all-wireless office, the reality was that it was way off in the future. I used to say "perhaps in 5 years…we could see all-wireless offices crop up". But it was more of a hopeful wish than a concrete answer.

2002-2007 – The answer really didn't change a lot during this period. However, the landscape was evolving rapidly. Intel Centrino and 802.11a/g made Wi-Fi ubiquitous on laptops. This was the foundation from which the wireless LAN market took off and made great headway in enterprises as security, ease of deployment and manageability issues were largely addressed using controller-based WLAN architectures. But even with Centrino, Wi-Fi was used largely for nomadic connectivity rather than as a replacement for wired. At least that was the conventional wisdom. For those that had experienced the freedom of being unplugged, the reality was that they never really plugged back into the Ethernet port anyway. The convenience of remaining unplugged was so addictive that it was really a chore to plug in again. Thus, the march had begun to the all-wireless office … but shared wireless LAN connections doing peak data rates of 54Mbps could hardly be viewed as a replacement to wired LANs that offered dedicated ports with speeds as fast as 100Mbps or 1000Mbps.

2007-2010 – My answer began to change with the emergence of 802.11n in 2007 and subsequent standardization in 2009. 802.11n wireless connections could go as high as 300Mbps and could be viable as the ONLY connection for laptops. For laptop-centric enterprises, this meant that there was a real opportunity to evolve to all-wireless offices. For some early adopter enterprises, mostly in the high tech enterprise and .edu, where collaborative workspaces were becoming the norm, the all-wireless office was a very real thing.

The economic downturn of 2008 created more mindshare for the all-wireless office as enterprise IT budgets got slashed. The notion of rightsizing networks by retiring unused or underused wiring closet ports made IT organizations give the first credible look at all-wireless offices. As laptops could go wireless, roughly 50% of the ports in laptop-centric enterprises were up for grabs. But the remaining 50% of ports used for desk phones were still not ready to be unplugged.

The 2000s saw the rise of the all-you-can-eat cellular plans and end user preference towards mobile phones had already meant that the desk phone was quickly becoming a voice-mail collector rather than a communication tool. 2007 also marked the launch of the iPhone. Need I say more on this other than – God bless Steve Jobs and the team at Apple that made it happen! The iPhone in one stroke, took all the dreams of the dreamers in silicon valley that created the Newton, the Palm, the Danger and other smart connected devices and made them come true in a more dramatic manner than anyone could have dreamt!

Despite all this, the desk phone still sits on our desks serving to remind us that it is there just in case cellular coverage was not good indoors or if you needed to attend a long conference call using the speakerphone function or if your cell phone battery ran out or ….. This insurance policy has served as enough justification to continue the investment in a desk phone and the ethernet port that comes with it.

To me, this period felt like we were so near, yet so far from an all-wireless office.

2010-2012 – The last couple of years however, have given me hope that the all-wireless office is beginning to happen for real. While a lot of our time in the industry goes to taming the BYOD mania and the security implications of BYOD, Microsoft in its typical style has been plugging away at the Unified Communication and Collaboration market. With Lync. I think they have finally cracked the code for unplugging the desk phone. More on this in my next post.

Its been quite a decade for wireless, but as the saying goes - the best is yet to come!

Stay tuned for the next installment coming soon. Follow my blogs here or catch me on twitter @KeertiMelkote

Keerti Melkote is co-founder and president of Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company.