WiFi logo and antennaI was sitting in Starbucks the other day typing an entry on my Alphasmart Dana Wireless. I wasn’t using the wireless aspect of the device, I was just typing away spilling my thoughts into binary, but the thought occurred to me, “I wonder if there’s WiFi around here?” As I suspected, there wasn’t any, but when I turned my attention back to typing the entry, a thought suddenly popped into my head. There was someone working on their laptop, I had a pa1m0ne Tungsten C on my hip and the Dana in my lap. Just from my vantage point, I saw 3 802.11 devices within close proximity, but without an access point, there was no way to connect to each other. That’s when I thought “What if WiFi could work like peer-to-peer?”
Technically it can. If I configure my network card into “AdHoc mode” and you can do the same and then we can connect to each other. However, as it currently stands, it’s a bit cumbersome and not something that the average person would be willing to do. Even if they were so inclined, the process is a bit of a kludge and typically not worth the trouble. Ideally, what I’d like it to act like is Bluetooth.

Bluetooth is a wireless standard that is billed as a “cable replacement” technology. The typical example is using a Bluetooth headset with your Bluetooth phone. Bluetooth (BT) removes the wire between your headset and your phone and allows you to talk wireless with your mobile phone. Other examples include BT keyboards and mice, but there are also BT access points, but they aren’t very common here in the US. If BT sounds a lot like 802.11, that’s because it is similar, but one thing that BT does that WiFi does not is the way it “creates relationships.”

Let’s go back to the BT headset/phone combo example again. In order to use the BT headset with the BT phone, you “create a relationship” between the two devices. The phone has to “see” the headset and then approve it’s use and thus “create a relationship.” Once that’s done, you are free to use your BT headset with your phone anytime. What you’ve just done is create a peer-to-peer connection between devices and that’s been the primary implementation of BT technology – peer-to-peer. However you can also use the same process to connect to an access point as well.

So how is WiFi any different? Well, in 99% of WiFi implementations, there’s an access point (AP) in the mix that connects everything together. That’s find and dandy when there’s a network behind that AP that’s providing services, such as Internet access, but what about when there isn’t? Think of how many instances in a public place where there are WiFi devices congregated, but there’s no AP to tie them together. Public HotSpots are definitely on the rise and I’m finding more and more all the time, but there’s more instances where there aren’t any. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could find other WiFi users if there wasn’t an access point?

Let’s say that you’re at a Starbucks to get a little work done. There’s no HotSpot, so there’s no 802.11 access point, but your laptop has WiFi built-in and it finds another laptop running WiFi nearby. You initiate a “relationship request” and then wave to the other person when he looks up to see who’s requesting the relationship. Since you’re listening to iTunes, the other person’s music appears in your “Sources” and you can now listen to any music he’s sharing and vice versa. Granted, your tastes may lean towards Debussy and his may lean towards Danzig, but wouldn’t it be cool to be able to discover that? :O

It’s not just limited to music sharing, which is very easy to do by the way in iTunes, but you could use this peer-to-peer sharing in many other instances as well. For example, you could share your business card, your resume, or portfolio. The hardest part about meeting new people is finding something in common, what if you could have a business profile publicly available in this situation as a way to expand your business network? Think of it as a local version of LinkedIn. Your sitting in a public library and you find that there’s a Gardner sitting nearby, so you ask him a question about crabgrass. Or perhaps the person a few tables is a programmer and they see that you’re a web developer, so you make their acquaintance and the next week you’re working on a project together.

Obviously I’m completely glossing over the security aspect of this scenario, not to mention what kind of 3rd party software would have to be in place in order for these scenarios to become a reality. 802.11 wasn’t designed to work in this manner easily and maybe Bluetooth with become more prevalent and step in to fill the gap. 5 years from now every mobile device may contain both WiFi and BT and what I’m describing will be pase, but in the mean time, you have to admit – it’s a cool idea! 😀