The Case of the Missing Ethernet Port: Colonel Mustard in the Library with Gigabit Wi-Fi
Biologists study evolution in fruit flies because they have a short lifespan and you can see genetic selection and evolution happen before your eyes. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen studied the hard disk drive industry for the same reason. Short product cycles gave him the ability to develop theories about the rise and fall of companies without needing to devote decades to watching the competition play out.
In IT, you’re old when you watch a technology fading away but yet you remember when it was new and poised to take over the world. In the mid-90s, the Ethernet wave was building but had yet to break.
At the time, I was fortunate enough to have one of the first laptops built-in Ethernet connectivity, the Zenith Data Systems Z-Note (in the photo, note the Asante adapter to the left of the computer providing Ethernet connectivity).
Back in the early 90s, ZDS tried to win customers with full-featured notebooks and made Ethernet connectivity a centerpiece of the strategy even before the PC Card standard was complete. In retrospect, I was even more fortunate that Donald Becker wrote a Linux driver for the Ethernet chip in the Z-Note because I spent a summer with the computer hooked up to the Internet at Indiana University. Toting a notebook with Ethernet connectivity, no matter how clumsy, made me stand out in an era when laptops were connected via clumsy parallel port-to-LAN adapters. Directly as a result of that experience, I co-wrote the proposal that led to the Ethernet install into student dorms at my own college.
With each passing day, the idea of Ethernet ports on laptops seems more like RS-232 serial ports. The serial port was one of the constants in life. Every computer I used had at least one 9-pin serial port. That DB-9 connection is pretty big, and the space on the outside of the case could be better used for more advanced interfaces. My company-issued laptop in 2006 dropped the serial port in favor of two USB ports. They take up about the same amount of exterior case space, but I’d much rather have the USB ports, even if the first thing I did was run out and buy a USB-to-serial adapter to continue to get console support for all the network equipment I had to talk to.
Most laptops still come with Ethernet ports, but it seems like their days are numbered. In January 2008, the original MacBook Air launched. At the time, I remember thinking that it was crazy to launch a laptop without Ethernet given the relative immaturity of 802.11n equipment. Three years makes a big difference. Aerohive, for example, stopped selling 802.11a/b/g equipment in 2010 because customers stopped buying it. I look back on the original Air announcement and I see the beginning of the end for built-in Ethernet ports, giving me the memory to remember Ethernet evolving from parallel-port connections to proprietary connections to PC Cards to built-in ports before succumbing to the rise of Wi-Fi.
What does all this mean for you? Two trends are converging that will drive the 8-pin Ethernet connector off the laptop. First, most users prefer to work with Wi-Fi connections, and most laptop buyers don’t like buying hardware they don’t use. In addition to the MacBook Air, Intel’s Ultrabook format (like this Asus AX21) trades features for weight, and just does not have space on the case for a relatively chunky Ethernet port. Even when we have Ethernet ports, we don’t use them.
I’ve used a MacBook Pro as my primary computer for a year and half now, and I can’t remember using the Ethernet port even once. Second, Wi-Fi is growing up. 802.11n produced “wire-replacement” speed, like the dual 450 Mbps radios in Aerohive’s newly-released HiveAP330. Software to support large-scale networks is also widespread, with your choice of sophisticated radio management software to build a self-managing Wi-Fi network. With Gigabit Wi-Fi on the horizon, complaints that Wi-Fi performance can’t keep up are set to take another body blow.
In the end, there’s no mystery to solve. It was not Colonel Mustard that killed the Ethernet port. It was us, but there’s no crime here. We don’t miss the Ethernet ports at all.