Other than the tablet PCs being announced, the cries of Wi-Fi Direct (pdf) seem to be the most frequently heard, according to several accounts coming back from Las Vegas.

A story from PC Magazine tells how much this technology is wanted –

Even with 802.11n ratified, the industry is already looking ahead to better speeds and better range. But the Wi-Fi Alliance, the group that facilitates testing of and certification for 802.11-based products that play nice together, has its own course to row in 2010. It’s concentrating on development and deployment of Wi-Fi Direct, a technology that will make connections between wireless equipment easy, even without an access point or router.

If you read the PDF above, you’ll see how Wi-Fi Direct differs from ad-hoc mode in not so subtle ways, making it a much better solution for many things, yet the interconnectivity will still be there. It almost sounds too good to be true.

Why is that important? The Alliance did a poll last month of 1,002 average people over the age of 18—not tech people—and asked them what kind of Wi-Fi connections they’d like to see. The numbers indicate consumers are not only cognizant of what Wi-Fi is, but that they want it in their consumer electronics.

Respondents said they have an interest in Wi-Fi enabled music speakers (74 percent) and they want wireless for streaming video throughout the house (also 74 percent). Some would settle for a Wi-Fi sync between their portable audio player and their music library (54 percent; are you listening, Apple?), and of course, a quick connection between a device to a printer would be lauded (71 percent).

All of these are areas where Wi-Fi Direct can be of service. In fact, 79 percent of those polled wanted it as soon as it was described to them.

When Wi-Fi Direct was first announced some pundits claimed that it was taking on Bluetooth head-to-head. That might be the case in select areas. Even Wi-Fi Alliance executive director Edgar Figueroa says that might be an understandable reaction when you only glance at the details. Plus, there are vendors preparing devices like keyboards, mice, and remote controls with Wi-Fi Direct, all of which, once would have been traditionally used Bluetooth (or some proprietary radio). He says it’s an easy demo to grasp: a quick wireless connection between a keyboard and a laptop with Wi-Fi Direct shows how fast it can be.

However, he doubts Bluetooth will be supplanted by Wi-Fi Direct. Nor does he think it will overshadow tech like low-powered ZigBee. He says, “Wi-Fi Direct would offer longer distance, faster speed, and the IP protocol so it’s instantly connectable,” making it right for some uses, but not all. Wi-Fi Direct on an automatic meter reader would be overkill, but it’s perfect for ZigBee.

Expect Wi-Fi Direct instead to create small offshoot networks. Use it to share a printer without sharing your network storage, for example. These could be one-off networks for visitors, or permanent such as connection to a SqueezeBox for music streaming. But that still keeps it separate from important data.

Wi-Fi Direct can also handle quick peer-to-peer sharing as needed. That’s the kind of thing the 802.11 Ad Hoc mode has done for years, but never with much ease.

Wi-Fi Direct is also designed with backwards compatibility in mind—even an old 802.11b radio could support it. Whether the support shows up on older products will be up to either the operating systems vendor (Figueroa said “We’re certainly hoping OS updates will help the Wi-Fi Direct rollout unfold) or chipset makers. And all the big name Wi-Fi chip vendors—Intel, Atheros, Broadcom, Marvell, Realtek–are showing Wi-Fi Direct products at CES.

Hopefully the big vendors will backport some of the Wi-FI Direct goodness into older drivers, because there is nothing that needs to be added to current hardware – the differences are all in software and firmware.

Backwards compatible doesn’t mean old products will get Wi-Fi Direct however. It’s probably not worth it to code new firmware for old 11b products for example, especially since Wi-Fi Direct supports Wi-Fi Protected Setup and WPA by default; many older products still don’t. Some still even use the old, broken WEP encryption.

Unless the pricing for new products comes down, the backporting would keep more people interested in new, while not making complete replacement necessary. This is part of the problem with greedy manufacturers – they have no concept of giving a little to get a little, or a lot.

But in theory, that doesn’t matter. The old products can still connect to other devices that do support Wi-Fi Direct; the old product will just see the new one as if it was an AP/router. The first products with Wi-Fi Direct should be out this summer.

Other Alliance tidbits revealed for CES: Last year it certified 1,461 products at its various testing labs. That’s 42 percent more than in 2008. There are 1,000 devices certified for 802.11n. And the big growth areas for devices: phone handsets (58 percent growth) and, of course, consumer electronics (28 percent growth).

One place where Wi-Fi Direct will make a difference is that Wireless Ethernet Bridges will no longer be the expensive, problematic things that they have been. Two inexpensive Wi-Fi Direct devices will be able to bridge wired networks easily, and quickly. Many other connections will be easily made, without complicated setup. Now if it only delivers as promised.

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Wow.