What's Next

Disruptive technologies are those that change not just business but society. Personal computers threw the mainframe-computer business for a loop. Airlines replaced passenger trains. HMOs became an alternative to the family doctor. In all these cases, the computer, transportation, and health-care moguls of the time didn't view the new entrants as real competition, but rather as gimmicks, flukes, toys. And the new entrants were, in their early incarnation, inferior to the technology they replaced. But they appealed to some groups of consumers enough so that they came to compete with, and eventually surpass, the previous technologies. And this is what is happening right now with wireless networking, which promises to change forever the computing and communication industries, creating a lot of business opportunity as it does so.

Wireless networking in this context means strictly unlicensed digital communication using radio signals. That eliminates cellular and other mobile-data networks, which are typically owned by phone companies. What it includes is an unlicensed technology generally known as "WiFi," because people don't want to say "IEEE 802.11a, b, and g."

WiFi exists primarily thanks to Apple Computer, which years ago proposed to the Federal Communications Commission that certain radio frequencies in the 2.4 to 5.8 gigahertz range be allocated for unlicensed data communication. Today those frequencies are available for people to do pretty much anything as long as they stay below a certain power output and make nice-nice with the neighbors. Apple intended to use the frequencies for wireless local area networks and introduced its AirPort product line several years ago to do just that. AirPort allowed computers to link with one another within a radius of 50 meters, sharing data at speeds up to 11 megabits per second.

AirPort wasn't disruptive; it was convenient. It was a clever idea that appeared to pose no threat at all to the communications-infrastructure players. What threat could be posed by a 100-meter network? But there is power, real power, in WiFi's unlicensed nature. As long as users didn't break the FCC rules on Effective Radiated Power (four watts max), they could do anything, and this was very attractive to experimenters, who came up with all sorts of WiFi-based business ideas, two of which eventually stuck. The first great idea was the so-called hot spot, a WiFi access point connected to the Internet that allowed those nearby to make a wireless connection to read their e-mail or look at dirty pictures while they drank coffee. Devised in the Internet's heyday, the not-very-well-thought-out idea was that people who could go online would buy more coffee and pay some sort of fee for access.

Companies you have never heard of are creating networks of hot spots in restaurants, in airports, on trains.