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But wait! How about Microsoft building this capability into its operating systems? In exchange for agreeing to turn your laptop into a shared hot spot/access point, Microsoft will give you free or discounted upgrades of its software. Bang-with its desktop/laptop dominance, Microsoft is now the biggest player in data networking. Call this approach “Mi-Fi.” (Bill, feel free to call me about this.)

To be sure, just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no such thing as a free innovation. Wi-Fi, however, comes appealingly close. Wi-Fi hot spots where passersby can piggyback, by invitation or not, on someone else’s wireless network are already “war chalked” on the sidewalks of New York and San Francisco. Philanthropies have endowed “free” Wi-Fi access in parts of Manhattan and other metropolitan areas. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the increasing number of public-private partnerships that oversee public libraries, public parks, and other public spaces offered subsidized access?

The purpose of these proposals is to remind innovators that in the end, Wi-Fi’s future will be determined less by its internal technological evolution than by the ways institutions and individuals are encouraged to adopt it. Increased density will in turn inspire innovative devices. Wi-Fi/Li-Fi/Mi-Fi-enabled pay phones are too obvious; I like the idea of 802.11-powered alarm boxes, fire hydrants, videocams, and baby carriages.

Perhaps Wi-Fi, Li-Fi, and Mi-Fi promote a more cooperative economics of adoption-just as we saw with the TCP/IP protocol behind the Internet and the hypertext transfer protocol that powers the World Wide Web. That’s enormously exciting, even if it isn’t necessarily great business. Then again, just as the rise of Linux forces Microsoft to become more innovative, the rise of Li-Fi/Mi-Fi couldn’t help but drive greater Wi-Fi innovation. That’s the surest way to promote ubiquitous adoption.

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