What does Wi-Fi stand for?

Nothing. There. It’s going to be a pretty short article, right?

OK, let’s back up and explain. Wi-Fi has always been a commercial product, unlike earlier forms of networking. Sure its roots date back as early as any other form of networking, in fact even further. The first use of Wi-Fi’s core technology dates back to the days of the Second World War, but wireless communication didn’t really come to the masses until the 1990s and early 2000s.

By then, the standard for wireless networking was established by the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The IEEE folks are really good at laying out technical specs and almost hilariously bad at coming up with catchy branding ideas. Their original name for Wi-Fi was “IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence Networking.” Sure, that’s pretty catchy if you’re an electrical engineer, but the idea was that wireless networking could benefit even the least technical of folks, so the group charged with promoting it realized they had a problem. They needed a better name.

They hired Interbrand, a zillion-dollar-per-hour ad firm, to create one, and the result, unveiled in 1997, was “Wi-Fi.” It doesn’t stand for anything, but it was designed to remind people of the previous generation of technology, which was characterized by the term “Hi-Fi,” short for “high fidelity.” This intentionally led people to the incorrect assumption that “Wi-Fi” stood for “Wireless Fidelity.” It doesn’t.

Those kooky people in the ’90s and their strange ways… this wasn’t the first time that a consumer product got a nonsense name. DVD came first… while you could say the name stood for “Digital Versatile Disc” or “Digital Video Disc” the fact is it doesn’t stand for anything either, and neither does the “X” in “XGA,” indicating graphics more detailed than VGA (which stood for Video Graphics Array.)

Still, the gamble paid off. The organization tasked with promoting Wi-Fi, known at the time as the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, changed their own name to Wi-Fi Alliance, and as Wi-Fi began to take over the world, it became pretty clear that it didn’t matter if the term stood for something or not.

In fact, if you buy that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you have to give it to the Wi-Fi people for several products over the years that have gone by the name MyFi (also meaningless) and our own line of Cel-Fi wireless boosters. Seems like calling something “Fi” is a pretty good way to promote it. In the meantime, a new generation has grown up without ever hearing the term “Hi-Fi” and that’s ok too.