Well, it's one of the worst-kept secrets of 2002, but Microsoft is jumping into the wireless home networking hardware market this fall with a complete line of wired and wireless networking products. Entering such a crowded market might seem like a curious decision given the competition, but Microsoft had previously made a few networking technology bets that never really panned out, including the simpler networking user interface in Windows XP, and support for Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), which was first introduced with Windows Millennium Edition (Me). Today, home networking is easier than ever, but still too difficult for most people. And UPnP, once seen as the savior for networkable devices that could announce their presence and capabilities to other UPnP devices, like Windows PCs, has faltered in the market, thanks to slow (or non-existent) adoption by companies such as Linksys, Netgear, and D-Link. After pushing XP and UPnP technologies to these companies for years and seeing few positive results, Microsoft decided it was time to enter the market itself and give consumers a simpler solution. Its line of Microsoft Broadband Networking products is the result.
Microsoft and hardware: An overview
But Microsoft's decision to jump into the home networking hardware market wasn't easily made. Previously, the company has generally stayed away from complex hardware devices and focused on core interactive hardware devices, so-called human interface devices such as mice, keyboards, and game controllers. Its series of mice products--first introduced in 1983--became hugely popular with the release of the contoured "dove bar" mouse in 1987 and has remained popular ever since. Microsoft's keyboards are also best-sellers, and its trendsetting Natural Keyboard--introduced in 1994--has paved the way for the wide range of ergonomic keyboards many writers (including myself) now take for granted.
Some Microsoft hardware hasn't fared so well, though the company deserves credit for continuing to plug away: A trackball for kids, the EasyBall, never really took off, for example, and an innovative game controller featuring tactile feedback, the Freestyle Pro, never found much of an audience either.
Why wireless? Why now?
Networking--especially home networking--has always been a wonderfully powerful solution searching for a simpler interface in order to gain wider acceptance. In the early days, vendors addressed this problem with simple but limited networking protocols like Apple's AppleTalk and Microsoft's NetBEUI, all of which are now impractical today. That's thanks to the popularity of the Internet, the complex yet powerful TCP/IP suite of networking protocols that has become the de facto worldwide computer networking standard, and all of today's modern operating systems now use TCP/IP natively.
To date, however, home networking products have remained somewhat of a niche market. Linksys and other companies have made a killing selling cheap little boxes that route broadband connections like cable modem and DSL to two or more PCs, but the wiring and setup requirements of these solutions are often too technical for many customers, leading me to wonder how many of these boxes remain unused in homes around America right now. And it wasn't until the release of the 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless networking standard, also based on TCP/IP, that truly useful home networking became possible for many people. With wireless networking, complex and often inexpensive cabling is no longer an issue, and computers can be placed wherever they're needed, not only where cabling exists. What is an issue with wireless, of course, is the setup. Unless you're using Windows XP, wireless networking can be incredibly frustrating, a fact I recently encountered trying to get wireless working on my father's Windows 98-based laptop. But even with XP, wireless is still too complex for many people.
Microsoft had originally hoped to overcome the complexity of wireless networking through the two initiatives I noted above. First, Windows XP introduced a new, simplified interface to wired and wireless networking connections, and can auto-detect and auto-configure many wireless networking adapters, making installation easy. Secondly, UPnP lets compatible wireless access points and wireless-ready broadband routers auto-configure themselves for use with UPnP clients such as XP, making networking even easier. Thus, in a home with a UPnP gateway to the Internet (typically a Linksys-style box, or an XP-based PC connected directly to the broadband connection) and XP clients on a wireless network, the experience should be simple and easy-to-set up.
As is often the case, reality fell short of theory. Linksys and the other companies that develop broadband routers, gateways, and access points didn't build UPnP support into their hardware, didn't provide UPnP updates for existing hardware, or did so too late. So when Windows XP shipped in October 2001, there were no hardware products on the market that could seamlessly connect an XP machine to the Internet. Microsoft, predictably, wasn't amused, as it had been pushing UPnP for about two years by that point and had given the hardware makers ample time to build such support into their products. Almost a year later, there are some UPnP-compatible products available, and some software updates for older products, but support remains spotty, and it's unclear how many users ever think of updating their existing hardware gateways anyway: Once you plug it in, you tend to forget about it.
So Microsoft decided it was time to seize the moment and introduce its own line of broadband-enable wired and wireless home networking equipment. I've been using the wireless production hardware for over a month now, and here's what I've found out.
The Microsoft Broadband Networking products I tested include a wireless base station (what other companies refer to as a gateway or router), a wireless USB networking adapter for desktop PCs, and a wireless PC card-based networking adapter for laptops. You can purchase two kits as well, including a Wireless Desktop Kit that combines the wireless base station with a single USB adapter, and the Wireless Notebook Kit, which combines the wireless base station with a single notebook adapter. The entire product line, with suggested pricing, breaks down as follows:
Wireless Base Station (MN-500) $150
Wireless USB Adapter (MN-510) $80
Wireless Notebook Adapter (MN-520) $80
Wireless Desktop Kit (MN-610; Base Station plus USB adapter) $220
Wireless Laptop Kit (MN-620; Base Station plus Notebook adapter) $220
10/100 Ethernet Wired Base Station (MN-100) $80
10/100 Ethernet USB Adapter (MN-110) $30
10/100 Ethernet Notebook Adapter (MN-120) $40
10/100 Ethernet PCI Adapter (MN-130) $25
10/100 Ethernet 5-Port Switch (MN-150) $40
The products are attractively packaged (Figure) and competitively priced, from what I can tell (compare the base station prices, especially, to Apple's similar base station product, which sells for $300).
A few notes regarding the hardware. When I heard murmurs about these products at the January 2002 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, I assumed that Microsoft would be targeting just Windows XP users, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this spring that the Microsoft Broadband Networking line is compatible with a wide variety of Windows OSes, including Windows 98, 98 SE, Millennium Edition (Me), 2000, and XP. Frankly, you're still going to get the best experience with XP, since some of the older OSes are missing some XP features that are used by the Setup Wizard and Network Utility applications Microsoft provides with the products.
Microsoft's decision to use 802.11b (Wi-Fi) is also interesting. This technology provides a purported 11 Mbps of bandwidth (compared to 100 Mbps on a wired Ethernet network), but the actual bandwidth is closer to 5-6 Mbps for most users. Compared to newer wireless technologies, such as the 54 Mbps 802.11a (which provides 20-25 Mbps of bandwidth realistically), Wi-Fi is pretty slow, and inadequate for streaming video or large file transfers. On the other hand, Wi-Fi is inexpensive, wildly popular, and far less buggy than newer 802.11a equipment. And because Wi-Fi is being implemented so widely these days in coffee shops, airports, universities, and other locations, there's a much greater chance that you will be able to take advantage of your notebook-based Wi-Fi hardware in other places. And Wi-Fi is fine for day-to-day tasks such as email, Web browsing, and even streaming MP3 and WMA audio files from another PC in your home.
Also, in case it isn't obvious, because the Microsoft hardware uses standard 802.11b and wired Ethernet technologies, much of this hardware will work with other types of PCs and network devices. That means you can add Macintosh or Linux clients to the Microsoft base station, for example, or use an XP laptop with a Microsoft notebook adapter on, say, an Apple AirPort network. These products are completely interoperable with other networking products from other companies, and with other architectures. However, to my knowledge, you can't install a Microsoft wireless notebook adapter in a Linux-based laptop, at least not yet. You will be able to eventually, however, since the Microsoft hardware is based on a standard Intersil 802.11b chipset. If you're not techie enough to appreciate the ramifications of that last statement, fear not. This stuff just works. Let's take a look at the set up.
Setting it up: For beginners
There are two ways you can set up your Microsoft Broadband Networking hardware. The first, which should be undertaken by most users, takes advantage of Microsoft's excellent software to walk you through the process. I'll take a look at more advanced set up possibilities in the next section.
Depending on your existing setup, you'll probably need to install at least one networking adapter (if you don't already have one) and a base station, which shares your broadband Internet connection with wireless and/or wired networking. Microsoft recommends that you install the networking adapter software first. That way, when you insert the adapter into a USB port, PC Card slot, or PCI slot on your PC, the drivers will kick in and install automatically. This works as advertised, and the Setup Wizard (Figure) included on the bundled CD-ROM (which, incidentally, is identical regardless of which hardware product[s] you've purchased) is a no-brainer.
The base station set up, predictably, is a bit more complicated. First, I ran the Setup Wizard again, choosing base station, rather than network adapter, at the correct time (Figure). The wizard then asked whether I was using the wireless or wired base station (wireless in my case), and what type of broadband connection I have (cable, Digital Subscriber Line [DSL], and so on). Then, it checked my networking components and continued.
What you see in the next step depends on your current set up. In my case, I replaced a few legacy networking hardware components with the Microsoft solutions (Figure). As an early adopter, I've gone through a variety of home networking schemes, and the latest configuration I had involved a Toshiba cable modem, a one-port Linksys UPnP-enabled router, an eight-port Netgear switch, a D-Link Wi-Fi (802.11b) wireless access point, and an Actiontec 802.11a wireless access point. The Microsoft solution replaced the Linksys and D-Link hardware in my setup. I suspect this single bit of hardware will be more than enough for most people--the Microsoft wireless base station includes four wired Ethernet ports--but because of my wide variety of networked hardware, I need more connections than that, so I'm keeping the Netgear switch in place.
At this point, I replaced the Linksys router with the Microsoft hardware, though most people will probably be inserting the Microsoft hardware directly between a PC and the broadband connection (the base station includes the additional Ethernet cable you'd need to do this). If needed, the provided instructions are very clear, and Microsoft was kind enough to supply a detailed User's Guide in addition to the more typical Start Here documentation that accompanies most of their hardware products. However, I don't think most consumers will need the detailed instructions.
Then, the wizard searches for and finds the base station. Now the configuration begins. First, I entered a wireless network name, or SSID, which is a unique identifier for the wireless network (I chose microsoft) and a channel (1-6), which can be changed if you experience lots of interference on the default channel or need to configure multiple wireless networks, each with its own channel (Figure). Then, I determined whether to use Wired Equivalency Privacy (WEP), a wireless security standard that's adequate for most home users. The default is that WEP is enabled, and I feel that this should be left alone though you can configure advanced WEP settings if you're paranoid (Figure). On an interesting side note, Windows XP SP1 and newer Windows versions will not connect to a non-WEP wireless network by default as an added security measure.
In the next step, I created a password for the base station (Figure), which is used later if you want to access the base station's configuration tools. After that, the base station was configured with the new information. Then, I was presented with an option for sharing files and printers (Figure). Because I had already set up file and printer sharing on my home network, I skipped this step, but it's a handy feature for home users not experienced with Windows sharing and security. And finally, the wizard asked me if I'd like to create a network settings floppy disk (Figure), using a blank floppy that Microsoft supplies in the box with each hardware device. The point here is that you can insert this floppy in any other Windows machines on your network, and they will be automatically configured with the correct network settings, even if they use non-Microsoft network adapters. I skipped this step as well, since all of my Windows machines are running XP and would be automatically configured. But this, too, is a nice addition for typical home users.
After the Setup Wizard completes, the Microsoft Broadband Network Utility (Figure) launches, providing you with a quick, graphical view of your network status and any networked devices. In my case, the status information includes my desktop PC (GOLDENEYE) and its file and printer shares, the THURROTT workgroup, and my Internet connection. Network devices include various PCs and laptops, an HP Media Center PC, an Apple iMac, a Snap Server, and so on. The Utility includes an optional tray icon you can use to quickly access the application, but finding it superfluous, I eventually turned it off.
To configure the base station, you launch the Base Station Management Tool (Figure) from the Tools menu in the Network Utility. This tool provides a secure Web front-end to the base station's many features, including Wide Area Network (WAN, Internet) and Local Area Network (LAN, your home network) settings like DHCP clients and the like (Figure). You can configure virtually any aspect of the base station from this interface, though I'd suggest that most home users would have no need to change anything. For the power user, however, the interface offers many advanced features, including MAC address spoofing for ISPs like AT&T which curiously insist on knowing the unique hardware address of the device connected to the cable modem. It's a complete solution, as good as anything I've seen from companies such as Linksys or D-Link.
Setting it up: For pros
For advanced users who shudder at the thought of wizards and walk-throughs, the Microsoft hardware offers other options. For example, if you want to install drivers for one of the network adapters, you can simply insert the CD into your PC, cancel the wizard, and then plug in the hardware. Windows will ask for a driver location: Choose automatic, and the system will search the CD and install just the drivers. If you're running XP, configuration is automatic too.
The wireless base station is similar. I found that you can simply load the software, skip out of the wizard, and then fire up the Network Utility to configure the base station if you like. Doing so, of course, is more complicated than using the wizard, and you'll want to make sure you step through all of the screens in the Base Station Management Tool to configure features like the firewall and WEP. And you'll have to set up file and printer sharing on your own, through Windows. I suspect most advanced users won't have a problem doing so. The Network Utility also works with other broadband routers, interestingly, though the Management Tool, of course, does not.
One thing that advanced users should be wary of is adding the Microsoft base station to an existing home network. Depending on your setup, the base station might use a completely different IP address and subnet, and if you replace your existing broadband router, some of your network devices will be unavailable until you change the settings in the base station. Again, anyone sophisticated enough to be performing such an upgrade is probably savvy to this problem, and it's certainly not unique to the Microsoft hardware.
My initial worries about Microsoft's foray into home networking were quickly forgotten, as the hardware is high quality and the simple software install really sets these products apart from the competition. Other companies, notably Belkin and Actiontec, are working on similar ease-of-use initiatives for home networking hardware, but Microsoft's is the first I've seen, and it seems to be well thought-out. Granted, I'm running XP all around, so my setup was simpler than most, but then I made up for that with the complexities of my pre-existing network. Regardless, it worked well.
If you're in the market for a simple home networking solution, I recommend the Microsoft Broadband Networking products, especially the wireless base station, which is often the weak link in setting up any home network. The company's excellent Setup Wizard and configuration tools will let even network neophytes get a secure home network up and running quickly.