New technology designed to enhance Wi-Fi is coming — and judging from the vast majority of articles and analyses of Wi-Fi Aware, it will mainly benefit consumers and retailers. But a closer look suggests this sensitive tech also has a place in office settings.
Last summer, the Wi-Fi Alliance — the organization that represents Wi-Fi equipment makers — introduced the Wi-Fi Aware certification program. Wi-Fi Aware lets mobile devices and apps find each other automatically, even before the devices connect to a wireless local area network, without using either GPS or the cellular network to link up.
“Once an interesting service has been discovered, an app can easily initiate a Wi-Fi connection for follow-up activity such as sharing photos or playing a multiplayer game,” says the Wi-Fi Alliance in a release.
Retail seems most likely to use Wi-Fi Aware. As the technology-explainer site Makeuseof says, shoppers with Wi-Fi Aware-enabled devices could receive sales promotions from stores close by. Shoppers might also use it to stay organized when retail chaos ensues. “If it’s really crowded (such as when shopping during Black Friday), Wi-Fi Aware could help pinpoint the location of lost friends and family,” Makeuseof says.
But Wi-Fi Aware could suit the enterprise as well. Craig Mathias, principal with technology consultancy Farpoint Group, notes that the discoverability capability helps address collaboration and connectivity issues. “Is a printer nearby, and where might it be? Is a particular multi-user application available on this network? Can I gain access to a particular resource if I connect? … With Wi-Fi Aware, pre-association service discovery is just that — learning what capabilities a given Wi-Fi network offers before a connection is established.”
It’s easy to see how Wi-Fi Aware might improve information sharing and collaboration in large organizations. A company could use it on employees’ smartphones so people can find each other and exchange information. Imagine marketing employees are discussing a new product. Let’s say they’re struggling to understand a particular feature and they could use input from a product engineer. With Wi-Fi Aware, they might find an engineer nearby and invite her to join the discussion.
Enhanced Wi-Fi may well find its place in the enterprise. And it might suit retailers as well. But there are no guarantees. Makeuseof points to one potential pitfall: mobile-device battery life. Wi-Fi Aware is said to use very little battery power. Even so, smartphone batteries rarely last more than about 12 hours. Even a tiny bit more battery usage could drain batteries in an untenably short time period.
Kyle Fugere, a guest Venture Beat blogger, points to another potential problem with not just Wi-Fi Aware, but all iterations of this kind of technology in retail: it’s hard to calculate the return on investment. “What is the dollar value of knowing a consumer is standing in front of the beans at a grocery store? Is a push notification that the beans are on sale going to do a better job of converting me than the bright yellow tag in red lettering, stating that the beans are in fact on sale? Maybe. But unless that message can be tailored to each person individually, that’s a fairly challenging ROI to prove, and at the moment, few in the space have the data necessary to make that calculation.”
Wireless networking expert Lee Badman says he’s concerned that if an individual’s Wi-Fi Aware device fails to detect nearby Wi-Fi Aware items or apps, that person might think the wireless local area network — and the people responsible for maintaining it — are at fault. “It’s one more thing the WLAN is likely to get blamed for.”
No doubt, significant questions remain with respect to Wi-Fi Aware’s application and practicality. Yet the potential benefits are compelling. If nothing else, the advent of this technology shows that Wi-Fi is still evolving, which is good. As Farpoint Group’s Mathias puts it: “While discussions surrounding Wi-Fi have, over the years, devolved to marveling about ever-greater throughput, adjunct capabilities like pre-association discovery will continue to keep Wi-Fi vibrant.”
Image: Mark Glucki