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December 2015

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Wired or Wireless?

I once heard of a manager who decided that one of his main goals would be to make his whole office environment wireless. While it may have sounded good on paper (maybe resume paper), it struck me as slightly naïve, slightly pretentious, and a little misguided. When I was growing up, television signals went through the air. (Remember playing with antenna when the picture would go fuzzy?) Nobody had cable TV - at least not anybody that I knew. Radio signals went through the air – usually on AM. Now there’s digital cable radio. But most of the new music I hear these days comes from Internet radio. We’ve gone from wireless technology to wired.

Telephone calls used to be routed through cables hung on wooden poles – accessible through jacks in your walls. Imagine. Now, people use mobile phones. We went from a wired technology to wireless. Computer keyboards were neither wired or wireless; they were part of the computer. Computer mice were mostly unheard of. Now, some people like wireless mice; some prefer wired. Why all the switching between wired and wireless? Is it all just a case of fads and fashion? Is wireless always better? Is wired always better? Is it sometimes one and sometimes the other?

To be clear, we are talking here about the transmission of information either through metal wires (or fiber-optic tubes), or through the air. The truth is that there are some clear and definite advantages to being wired. There are clear and definite advantages to being wireless. Sending information through a wire is like talking through a tube. Wireless is more like shouting something out for anybody within earshot. Each method has its time and place. Changing requirements and improving technologies can each change the balance and make one method preferable to the other.

Since television and radio were originally conceived for broadcast of information, wireless was a natural solution. Telephone, on the other hand, was meant to be private (a “person-to-person call”), so wired was the more natural fit. What changed is that high-quality video is better delivered through a wired channel (no messing with the antenna). Therefore, cable TV became the popular option. The highly desirable capability to be able to call anyone from any place is what has resulted in the huge popularity of (wireless) cell phones.

  • can send more information faster and more reliably
  • less susceptible to lost connections (e.g. cell phones in tunnels)
  • less susceptible to eavesdropping
  • requires less energy for transmission
  • usually doesn’t require batteries, recharging, etc.
  • can work from anywhere within range
  • no need to run cable, route through walls, etc.
  • don’t need to plug in / unplug
  • you’re not tied or tethered down
  • won’t trip over or otherwise get hung up on cabling
  • no unsightly masses of tangled spaghetti-like cables
  • DESKTOP COMPUTER: use an Ethernet cable to connect to the Internet, unless entirely impractical
  • LAPTOP COMPUTER: go wireless unless the laptop will remain in place for over a day
  • KEYBOARD & MOUSE: use wired versions. The signal’s better and you won’t need batteries. Also, this is less expensive in general. Route your cables so that they won’t get in your way. Note that some people still prefer wireless mice
  • PRINTER: go wired if a network cable and router/switch are handy – less prone to problems
  • SPEAKERS: go wired for better sound quality at lesser price
  • PHONE: wired for a desk phone (for consistent quality), otherwise cell or portable

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