802.11ac is Almost Here

by Colin Berkshire

Colin here. 802.11ac will start appearing in force in products this year. It is the latest and greatest Wi-Fi standard that will replace 802.11a, b, and g. It will receive final approval this year. Now, considering how long it has taken the working group, and how many man hours they have put into it that it would solve all of the problems of the past decade or so.

Yes, yes, it is faster. But I really don’t care because 802.11g was already faster than my Internet connection.

What I do care about is keeping road warriors out of my company’s secrets, protecting our customer’s data, blocking hackers, and keeping my home computer safe. We all know that Wi-Fi WEP security is a joke. We know that WPA isn’t much better. And we know that WPA2 is very vulnerable in a variety of ways, including a death attack. Most Wi-Fi uses no security and so all of the data can be simply sniffed.

So, would you be surprised to learn that 802.11ac does nothing whatsoever to fix any of these security problems? I certainly was surprised.

I had just assumed that 802.11ac encrypted every packet. Why shouldn’t a Wi-Fi Access Point offer fully encrypted security without the need for a password? Shouldn’t I be able to walk into range of an 802.11ac Access Point and connect to is with no password and have a safe, secure, encrypted connection? I don’t understand how this could not be at the top of the priority list.

Oh, well, actually I think I understand the problem.

Oddly, the problem relates to the question of why America prints dollar bills out of paper. Honestly, it does.

Coins are most cost effective than paper bills. The average paper bill lasts just 18 months. We spend billions of dollars printing new paper currency. If we could switch to coins for dollars the savings is significant. This is why we have the one dollar coin.

The original one dollar coin, the Eisenhower dollar, was huge and heavy and expensive. A blue ribbon commission was out together and they decided that the right thing was to mint a smaller, lighter, and cheaper one dollar coin. Unfortunately, they picked a size that was very nearly that of a quarter. It was the sort of stupid mistake that only a blue ribbon political committee could make. The United States launched the dollar quarter coin and the public recognized the problem immediately and they rejected it. The new dollar coin flopped and basically went out of circulation.

Recognizing the huge financial benefit of having a dollar coin, a new blue ribbon political committee was appointed to design a new dollar coin that overcame the objections of the public and that would be widely adopted. This committee was heavily represented by the vending machine lobby. After all, who would know vending and coins and the public better? The vending machine lobby looked at its huge investment in existing dollar coin acceptors and eventually concluded that the right answer was to design a new dollar coin that was compatible with the existing installed base. The key to public acceptance was quick and wide acceptance by existing vending machines.

Thus, this second committee concluded that to attain quick and high acceptance by the public, it was essential that the newly designed dollar coins be backward compatible with existing machines. They decided to launch the new dollar coins…in the same form factor as has previously failed. Thus, the dollar quarter was re-introduced.

The new dollar quarter was a resounding flop for precisely the same reasons that the first dollar quarter flopped. It was confusingly similar to the quarter.

Blue ribbon committees have a way of duping themselves. This committee knew the dollar coin had failed, their mission was to design a new, successful coin. And, they convinced themselves that by making a slight change to the coin: using a smooth edge instead of a knurled edge the public would no longer be confused. What nobody in the committee ever thought to do was to put five of the new dollars into their pocket along with a bunch of other change and then see if they could pick out the dollar coins, quickly.

Committees are often like that. They know what they are supposed to do, but they get stupid and they design stupid things that don’t solve the customer’s problems.

Apple succeeded because of Steve Jobs. There were no committees at Apple. One man single-handedly drove smart decisions through. Steve Jobs didn’t care about technology…he cared about customers. He told Apple to just build what he wanted…and they did.

The same has been true of almost every hugely successful company on earth: Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Ray Kroc (McDonald’s), Bill Gates, Theodore Vail (Bell System). Customer driven management makes great companies. There is a reason that not one single successful company operates as a democracy: Blue ribbon committees are always dysfunctional.

So back to the 802.11ac standard. It is faster. It is more technical. It is more buzzwordy. But it is not more secure. It does not offer secure connections without passwords between clients and the Access Point. What a shame.

By the way, the dollar coin committee needed only to look at coinage used in other countries to get some ideas. (We Americans so often fail to learn from other countries.) I might suggest the Hong Kong two dollar coin is in the right track:

Hong Kong $2 coin
Hong Kong $2 coin