The Name Game
Not too long ago, if you wanted to connect two wired networks together via a wireless link, you looked for a product called a wireless bridge. They tended to cost close to $500, and only talked to other bridge devices. Life was simple, but expensive.
In late 2001, consumer networking companies were looking to add features to their 802.11b APs in order to differentiate themselves in a market that was making their products pretty much a commodity. Up until then, Access Points had just one mode, which allowed client devices operating in Infrastructure mode to associate (connect) and access the wired LAN that the Access Point was connected to.
So to spice things up a bit, manufacturers started adding bridging features to their Access Points. The new features added the ability for Access Points to connect to other Access Points to form wireless bridges. Unfortunately, most companies continued to call these products "Access Points", and therefore started down the path to consumer confusion. With prices of these improved Access Points dropping to around $100, life got a little more confusing, but much less expensive!
In late Summer / early Fall 2002, things got even more confusing (but not less expensive!) with the addition of a new class of products, also capable of wireless bridging. These products, such as Linksys' WET11, and Hawking's WB320, go by different names, but provide the ability to take any device with an Ethernet connector and connect it to a wireless network. If the manufacturers had stopped there, I probably wouldn't be writing this article, since it would be clear that these products were basically a wireless client adapter that connected to a computing device via an Ethernet port instead of the USB, CardBus, PC Card, or PCI buses that previous adapters sported.
But manufacturers didn't stop and instead gave these devices the ability to support multiple devices (typically up to 20) connected to their single Ethernet connector. But wait, isn't that we could already do with the Access Point / Bridges? What do these new products do that can't already be done?