Wi-fi Direct has no need for the internet
Is there now a fourth utility? We all take water, gas and electricity for granted, but Wi-fi internet access is moving from becoming something to get excited about to something merely essential for everyday life.
Is there anything more frustrating than having the internet at your fingertips, but on a smartphone that's struggling to load pages?
The smartphone has taken Wi-fi from being a tech used by laptops to something used by everyone, everywhere, but it's what comes next that could make "one of the greatest success stories of the last century" into a 21st-century icon. If it's not already.
That hyperbole comes from the Wi-Fi Alliance, which created the wireless technology back in 1999. Wi-fi's 15th birthday seems like a good time to reappraise it, because the birth of fitness gadgets, the evolution of the smart home and the global spread of hot spots is making it an endemic public utility demanded by us all.
Wi-fi now uses 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz frequency radio waves, but it's changed a lot in those 15 years. When it began, it offered just 11 megabits per seconds; now it can reach a gigabyte per second. That 1,000 times increase has been accompanied by an explosion in the number of gadgets it's used in.
As well as 4,000 smartphones and tablets, over 1,100 printers, 6,000 routers and 3,500 smart TVs have been Wi-fi certified in the last 15 years. Two billion Wi-fi devices were sold last year alone, a figure that will double by 2020, according to the Wi-fi Alliance. Most startling of all, Wi-fi is used in a massive 25 per cent of homes around the world.
The success of Facebook and Weibo would have been impossible without Wi-fi, and there's been a huge surge of instant messaging apps in the last few years (including WhatsApp, WeChat, KakaoTalk, LINE, Viber and SnapChat) that actively seek-out Wi-fi to dodge data costs. Without Wi-fi, a smartphone or tablet is just a hunk of plastic and glass.
It's central to our increasingly mobile online experiences, but can it stay that way? The main challenge will be the stratospheric growth of gadgets that want to get online, and wirelessly; the so-called Internet of Everything.
If you've an Android device and a reasonably recent smart TV, another Wi-fi technology, called Miracast, lets you see your smartphone or tablet's screen mirrored on the big screen.
Innovation has already gone much farther than that. The Wi-fi Alliance's key tech for the futuristic smart home is Wi-fi Direct. With each gadget creating its own small Wi-fi network, Wi-fi Direct enables device-to-device connectivity without the fuss.
It can be used to make the connection between your phone, a printer, a pair of speakers, a TV, a "cloud camera" for home security, and perhaps even your pair of Google Glass without having to input lengthy passwords or attend to routers.
Wi-fi Direct is Wi-fi without the internet, and it's been in most devices for three years.
Wi-fi as it exists now remains a trade-off between speed and range, but two new forms of Wi-fi will extend both. For those wanting to upload and download data super-fast while relatively near to a router, the upcoming WeGig will operate at 60Ghz and support "multiple-gigabit data rates" by 2016.
The second technology, called IEEE 802.11ah and 802.11af, runs at just 900Mhz and will offer very poor data speeds, but works across huge areas.
While WeGig will super-charge homes, it's IEEE 802.11ah that will fuel what should probably be renamed the Wi-fi Internet of Everything. It might be the fourth utility, but Wi-fi still has a few surprises coming down the technology pipeline.