Wifi may not be cutting-edge technology anymore, but iPhones, netbooks and other portable devices will put it in many more consumers' hands this year, according to figures released by the Wi-Fi Alliance and research company In-Stat.
Once associated mainly with laptop PCs, wifi is now embedded in many mobile phones, cameras and gaming consoles, and even some TVs. This lets users share data around a home and with friends on the internet, as well as boosting the data speeds of smartphones in certain locations.
Overall shipments of wifi chipsets rose 26% to 387 million in 2008, according In-Stat and the Alliance, an industry group. One reason wifi is going into so many products is that chipmakers are integrating it with other forms of networking in a single chipset, says In-Stat analyst Norm Bogen. Rather than beating out other forms of connectivity, such as WiMax or 3G (third-generation) mobile data, wifi is being included with them. For example, Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset for mini-notebooks includes wifi alongside 3G, Bluetooth, broadcast TV and GPS capabilities.
Shipments of wifi chips in dual-mode mobile handsets grew 52% in 2008, to 56 million units, In-Stat and the Alliance says. The Apple iPhone, which was introduced in 2007 in the US and expanded to more than 70 countries in 2008, helped drive that growth with shipments of more than 10 million units. It also helped set the tone for the industry, making wifi capability a standard feature on smartphones, available on Research In Motion BlackBerry models as well as the T-Mobile G1 Android phone. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, T-Mobile USA introduced the Shadow smartphone, a dual-mode device that can be used for making calls from wifi hotspots.
Wifi was also quickly added to stationary consumer electronics devices, such as printers, game consoles, set-top boxes and digital TVs. The number of wifi chips shipped in those types of products grew 51% to 48 million units. Consumers also bought more devices that gave them wifi connectivity on the run, such as cameras, portable music players and handheld game units, such as the popular Nintendo DS. Shipments in that category grew 33 % in 2008, to 71 million units. In 2009, all handheld game devices will have wifi In-Stat claims.
Wifi's penetration of the laptop market grew more slowly, by just 23%, though from a larger base. There were 144 million wifi chips used in portable computers in 2008, counting laptops, mini-notebooks, ultramobile devices and mobile internet devices. The alphabet soup of small laptop alternatives, also including the emerging netbook category, will help drive a 12% increase in the PC arena this year. Almost all netbooks will have wifi, while many will also have 3G, Bogen says.
Most PCs are getting the latest wifi technology, according to In-Stat and the Alliance. They say more than half of the mobile PCs shipped in 2008 were equipped with 802.11n draft 2.0 equipment. The Alliance began certifying products using this interim standard, which can support speeds of more than 100Mb per second, in June 2007.
Home networking and smartphones will also be significant drivers of wifi growth in 2009, according to In-Stat and the Wi-Fi Alliance. Shipments of wifi-enabled smartphones should grow twice as fast as for smartphones as a whole, they say.
Multiple network modes are the growing trend, both because many consumers want a choice of connectivity and because the incremental cost of adding wifi is minor, according to In-Stat's Bogen. There are some users of laptops and other wifi devices who don't mind searching out a hotspot and in some cases paying to use it, but for relatively uninterrupted internet access, cellular data is needed, with wifi for a speed boost in certain spots, he says.
Ongoing silicon development is also bringing another big benefit to wifi device users, Bogen says: Smaller, more integrated and more efficient chipsets are draining less battery power, and that will only get better over the course of this year, he says.