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The name that changed the game: Wi-Fi celebrates 25 years

Posted by: Paola Norambuena on July 12, 2010

It’s ubiquitous, expected – its name synonymous with a kind of freedom we are not-so-gradually taking for granted. Sometimes it’s an unexpected relief to be without it, and we realize we could, occasionally, use a little less connection. For some it’s a basic human right we fight to provide, to aid in education and progress. Its recent availability on flights came, certainly, with mixed feelings.  (A blessing when you’re on that deadline, a curse when all you want to do is settle in with that book you’ve been dying to read on your Kindle or iPad).

But this much is certain: 25 years after the FCC okayed unlicensed access to radio spectrum for communications a world without Wi-Fi and all it has enabled would be, frankly, unimaginable.

That FCC decision paved the way for Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies – but its name, for some 14 years after this, remained code.

In 1999, a handful of industry leaders formed a global non-profit organization with the goal of “driving the adoption of a single worldwide-accepted standard for high-speed wireless local area networking.” They called themselves the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA – now known as the Wi-Fi Alliance). Phil Belanger, a WECA founding member knew he “needed something that was a little catchier than IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence.”

Catchier indeed. The standard term was neither sticky nor clear. So WECA approached Interbrand to give the standard a new name. When we delivered Wi-Fi, we never imagined how game-changing it would be. The new name made the concept easier to communicate, and made the standard simpler to adopt.

Contrary to popular myth, we didn’t settle on Wi-Fi because it literally represented “wireless fidelity.” Rather, we wanted to build on the recognizability of Hi-fi, or high fidelity – a  truly evocative term, particularly for those of us who remember what this meant for sound. The name deliberately plays off an older technology coining, one that had become just as easily understood and used as Wi-Fi is today. Names don’t create the offering, but they do help us make sense of how our world, and particularly technology, evolves and affects our day-to-day. In that, they can be make-or-break.

So, 25 years after the Wi-Fi Alliance’s visionary goal, and the FCC’s landmark decision, we’ve taken this term into our everyday language. It has become part of popular culture, a global, cross-cultural term for connectivity. And it’s made it into dictionaries including an official entry in Merriam-Webster (although we’re still waiting for you, OED…)

And as technology continues to evolve at warp speed, we can’t help but wonder: Had it remained IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence, would we be walking into a corner café in Idaho or a library in Peru confident that we can update our Facebook status or upload that crucial document or our business FTP site?

Read more on this topic at Mobile Marketer

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