802.11n promises a lot: fast wireless speeds and longer range. Equipment using precertification hardware offers speeds of up to 600Mbps, which is a huge bump from 802.11g speeds of 54Mbps. Some vendors are getting antsy, and are already shipping precertification equipment. Dell has apparently decided to join the likes of Belkin, Linksys, and D-Link in selling "draft-compliant" 802.11n gear.
The world’s top PC manufacturer plans to begin shipping laptops with built-in "draft" 802.11n capability beginning in the third quarter of this year. That would make Dell among the first PC makers to market with support for the unfinalized 802.11n spec built in. Once the 802.11n spec is finalized, Dell hopes to update the chipset so that it would work seamlessly with "official" 802.11n gear.
The key word here is "hopes."
Even as the onslaught of 802.11n "draft compliant" gear hitting the market begins, it looks as though we may be some distance away from a finalization of 802.11n. Divisions within the IEEE Task Group N are strong, and the Draft 1.0 of the 802.11n spec drew an unusual number of comments, about six times what was expected. In order for a draft to become final, it needs approval from 75 percent of Task Group N membership. Draft 1.0 garnered a measly 46 percent. As a result, we’re anywhere from 12 to 18 months away from a finalized 802.11n.
So why not go with "draft complaint" equipment and upgrade it via flashable ROM or firmware to the final spec? That’s the route Dell, Linksys, Belkin, and others are choosing. Unfortunately "draft-complaint" doesn’t automatically mean "upgradable to 802.11n compliant." Linksys is on record as saying that it cannot guarantee its current products will be upgradable, and the story is the same for the other manufacturers.
Draft 1.0 of 802.11n is an early draft, and far from finished. As a result, interoperability and performance problems are likely to hit so-called draft-compliant equipment. That could end up biting Dell in the behind, especially if Dell is unable to update its chipset to the "real" 802.11n spec, once finalized. 600Mbps wireless speeds sound enticing, but if consumers decide on a Dell laptop because of support for precertification technology only to find that it can’t work correctly with final-spec 802.11n gear, Dell is going to have unhappy customers and egg on its face.