Wi-Fi is everywhere. Internet cafes, homes, airports, even planes now offer wireless connections to the web. But have you ever stopped and wondered what it actually means?
If you're big into music, you might say it's short for "wireless fidelity." After all, that's what hi-fi stands for, and Wi-Fi is clearly aping that.
But it's actually a deeper, slightly more absurd story than that. One that involves international branding and exploding black holes — and I'm absolutely serious about the black holes.
So, let's start from the beginning to see how Wi-Fi became such a ubiquitous part of our daily lives.
The wireless revolution started off in 1971 with our most remote state — Hawaii. That June, the University of Hawaii pioneered the Additive Links On-line Hawaii Area network. Or ALOHAnet for short. The university's project became the first publically demonstrated wireless packet network.
But that was just the beginning.
In 1974, Stephen Hawking theorized that blacks holes could actually emit light. The idea is that as they got hotter, they would shrink. That, in turn, would cause an explosion and a great emission of light and radiation.
In an effort to find out whether they could indeed explode, researchers in the field dove right in. Students and scientists all over the world were soon hard at work to see if they could catch a glimpse of a black hole letting off steam.
One of those students was John O'Sullivan — a Ph.D graduate fresh from Sydney University. He had studied engineering and physics and was now in the Netherlands researching Hawking's theory.
He and his colleagues tried to measure the pulses of incredibly small black holes, but there were problems. The equipment they used wasn't refined enough. "The black holes we're talking about might weigh as much as Everest but are the size of an atomic particle," he said in a 2009 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. "They finally explode, but as the radio wave travels towards us through space it gets distorted. We needed to find a way to either detect the smeared signal or unsmear it all together."
He relied on a mathematical discovery dating back to 1822 — Fourier transforms. Fourier transforms are used to break up a signal into its component pieces. He successfully adapted the concept to radio astronomy and optics, allowing his team to get a clearer signal for its research.
They never got to witness a black hole explode with it, but before long, O'Sullivan considered the possibilities. "It was several years before the worldwide web, there was just email and specialized computer services," he said. "But I started thinking that if you could just cut the wires and have portable computing, able to access networks at full data rates, there would be huge potential."
Throughout the '80s, the research continued. One issue was reverberation — the idea that as the signal spread and bounced off of objects, it would get distorted. O'Sullivan had to start from scratch, etching the Fourier transforms onto a chip and programming it to split the signal up.
"Rather than send a signal at one high-speed data stream, we'd do it in parallel, like a motorway, sending 100 messages at a million flashes per second," he said. "This side-stepped reverberation. There was a lot more work to do. But that was the basis of fixing the problem."
It still wasn't perfect, but it was a start. In any case, Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) owned the patents for his work.
Then, the '90s came.
The Internet was taking root all over the world, and this whole "wireless" fad was gaining some traction. In 1991, the National Cash Register Corporation worked with AT&T to create the forerunner to IEEE 802.11. It was meant for use in cashier systems, keeping them linked with each other. They called their creation WaveLAN.
In the mid-'90s, CSIRO picked up more patents to further the signal "unsmearing" process. The race was on. IEEE 802.11 came out in 1997, creating the first full standard for wireless Internet. It got a speed boost in 1999 (coining the 802.11b standard), going from providing 2 Mb/s to 11 Mb/s.
Later, the IEEE would come up with 802.11g, n, and ac, all of which had ever-higher transfer rates and better stability. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
At that point, wireless Internet was more than an interesting idea, it was an inevitability. With that in mind, a collective of experts and corporations banded together to form a way to maintain the protocol's interoperability.
But what to call it?
It turns out IEEE 802.11 doesn't really roll off the tongue. But these people were tech specialists, not creative consultants. They didn't know what to call the new process. So, they did what anyone would do in their position.
They farmed it out to a branding agency.
Interbrand has put together ad campaigns for firms in diverse fields ranging from Microsoft to Nissan to Wrigley, Xerox, and Samsung. But their most popular idea is probably the one that came around in 1999.
The agency took the factors into consideration before coming back with their answer — Wi-Fi. It was clearly a pun on hi-fi. The first slogan even points to it — "The standard for wireless fidelity." So, Wi-Fi obviously means wireless fidelity, right?
It just means Wi-Fi. Don't believe me? Ask Phil Belanger. He was a founding member of that collective, which became known as the Wi-Fi Alliance. In a 2005 interview with Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow, Belanger said, "Wi-Fi doesn't stand for anything. It is not an acronym. There is no meaning."
Nihilistic overtones aside, it's as simple as that. Belanger said his colleagues were nervous about people rejecting the Wi-Fi name, so they pushed for a slogan to help explain it.
You might argue that it's just semantics — clearly Wi-Fi and wireless fidelity are inextricably tied together. But Belanger disputes that. He even deconstructs the slogan to reveal it as the meaningless adspeak it is.
"This tag line was invented after the fact," he said in his interview. "After we chose the name Wi-Fi from a list of 10 names that Interbrand proposed. The tag line was invented by the initial six-member board, and it does not mean anything either. If you decompose the tag line, it falls apart very quickly. 'The standard?' The Wi-Fi Alliance has always been very careful to stay out of inventing standards. The standard of interest is IEEE 802.11. The Wi-Fi Alliance focuses on interoperability certification and branding. It does not invent standards. It does not compete with IEEE. It complements their efforts. So Wi-Fi could never be a standard. And 'Wireless Fidelity' — what does that mean? Nothing. It was a clumsy attempt to come up with two words that matched Wi and Fi. That's it."
And that's all she wrote.
These days, Wi-Fi and systems like it (think cell towers) are everywhere. The Wireless Broadband Alliance (similar to but legally distinct from the Wi-Fi Alliance) even recently announced that June 20 will be World Wi-Fi Day — an initiative to celebrate and accelerate all things Wi-Fi.
But you don't have to scour the web for references to it. Whether it's your Linksys router or your Galaxy S5907, you're using a technology that was developed and honed over a period of nearly 30 years. It came about from a combination of university research, cash registers, and exploding black holes.
And it all came together thanks to the help of one tiny... world-renowned multinational branding agency.