Most people don't bother to learn the differences between Wi-Fi standards. Those who try are greeted by nonsensical designations like 802.11 a/b/g/n and the like. These monikers have meanings, sure, but it's not easy for the lay person to grok at a glance which is better. The Wi-Fi Alliance announced a new system that uses good-ol' numerals to differentiate between the varying communications protocols and make it easier to know which is the newest.
The Wi-Fi Alliance is a non-profit that certifies products using the various wireless communications protocols developed by IEEE. Companies that want to use the Wi-Fi branding for their products have to go through the group. Most do. "Wi-Fi" is something like Kleenex or Q-Tip for wireless standards. Not everyone knows what Bluetooth is, or how NFC works, or what their cellular network is capable of. Wi-Fi is equivalent to "wireless" for them.
This new versioning system reflects the relative disinterest people have in learning about the differences between 802.11a and 802.11ac or any of the other standards available. The Wi-Fi Alliance said that 802.11n will now simply be known as Wi-Fi 4, 801.22ac as Wi-Fi 5 and the upcoming 802.11ax will be Wi-Fi 6. (Apparently with Wi-Fi, much like the original Star Wars trilogy, you don't need to worry about what came before versions 4-6.)
Here's how the Wi-Fi Alliance explained the reasoning behind this new versioning system in its announcement:
“For nearly two decades, Wi-Fi users have had to sort through technical naming conventions to determine if their devices support the latest Wi-Fi,” said Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of Wi-Fi Alliance. “Wi-Fi Alliance is excited to introduce Wi-Fi 6, and present a new naming scheme to help industry and Wi-Fi users easily understand the Wi-Fi generation supported by their device or connection.”
The non-profit said that the new Wi-Fi designations won't be restricted to spec sheets and marketing materials. Companies will also be able to use them in their products' user interfaces to let people know what kind of Wi-Fi connection they're currently using. That can have a dramatic impact on performance--you might want to use a 2.4GHz band if you're looking for max range, for example, and a 5GHz one if you need maximum speed.
Right now there isn't a great way to figure out which band you're using when you connect to a network. Having your smartphone, laptop, and other devices tell you whether you're using Wi-Fi 4 or 5 would be an obvious improvement. That isn't up to the Wi-Fi Alliance, though, so individual companies will have to decide if they want to make this information more readily available to their customers. Hopefully most of them decide to do so.
The Wi-Fi Alliance said this new versioning system will officially go into effect when 802.11ax (sorry, Wi-Fi 6) debuts sometime in 2019. It's not clear if companies that want to use Wi-Fi 4 or 5 to refer to 802.11n and 802.11ac will do so before the new version comes out.