Notes from the Wireless Battleground

As you read this, wireless networking is transforming the way people work and play with computers, and if you're as excited about this kind of thing as I am, you'll be happy to know that high-speed wireless networking is no longer the play thing of the rich and famous. With prices hitting $100 per network card, high-speed wireless is finally within reach of the masses. Let's consider what's possible with 802.11b networking technology—beyond the obvious.

Wireless Access with the Pocket PC

You can wirelessly network two or more PCs directly with 802.11b cards, or you can use a connection point (e.g., the 3Com AirConnect, the Lucent Orinoco Residential Gateway, or the SohoWare NetBlaster II) to connect to an outside network such as the Internet using a cable, DSL, or T1 connection—without requiring that a bridge PC be on all the time. But you can also connect Pocket PC devices to the wireless network, assuming you've got a device that includes a PC card slot.

One such device is Compaq's award-winning iPaq, which provides this support through a PC card sleeve that slides over the back of the unit and provides access to a host of PC card devices. (In contrast, the Hewlett-Packard (HP) Jornada series supports only Compact Flash expansion; at the time of this writing, no wireless networking cards have this format.) Adding any expansion sleeve to the iPaq nearly doubles the size of the device, but it's still portable and lightweight, and an included second battery helps keep the wireless NIC from draining the built-in battery too quickly. What you get in return is a wireless wonder that—almost—fits in your pocket.

Wireless access on the iPaq lets you synchronize with Outlook and your desktop PC files at the same speed or faster than USB, but without having to worry about cables. And because the iPaq has fairly full-featured Web browsing and email functionality, it's almost workable as a mini-laptop if you don't mind investing in a Targus foldable keyboard as well (I might examine this possibility in the near future, minus the wireless capability). You'll need a card that comes with Windows CE 3.x drivers; the Sierra Wireless AirCard and Orinoco both offer this capability.

The Palm vs. Pocket PC debate is one I'll leave for a later day. However, having 11Mbps wireless networking capabilities is definitely a boon for the iPaq.

Using an Apple AirPort with Windows

When Apple announced its AirPort wireless gateway last year, the company became the first to offer 802.11b wireless networking to home users at an affordable price. Apple's offering, however, is based on Lucent technology and is therefore compatible with Windows-based networks as well. And although the AirPort is no longer the cheapest connection point available, you can use this attractive, UFO-like device with your Windows machines.

The key to getting the AirPort to work with Windows is a nice (read: Free) utility called FreeBase, which also works with any Lucent connection points (and is preferable in many ways to the awful Java-based utility that Lucent provides). FreeBase lets Windows users configure the AirPort, which is crucial unless you've also got a Macintosh lying around with an Apple AirPort card in it. (See the link at the end of the column for more information about FreeBase.)

802.11b Out of the Box

Like other mainstream technologies, such as USB and FireWire, 802.11b will probably take off—and come down further in price—when it's offered, out of the box, on new PCs. The first PC I'm aware of that offers this capability is the Toshiba Tecra, which you can purchase with an optional, built-in wireless antenna the company calls Wi-Fi. This feature resembles the integrated wireless options Apple Computer now offers in most of its products. Other PC makers—such as IBM—have announced similar plans, and I expect we'll see more of this sort of thing once Windows XP ships this fall. Which brings us to . . .

The Future: Windows XP and 802.11b

Windows XP will be the first OS to ship with native support for 802.11b out of the box. But Windows XP won't just support this technology with simple drivers. Instead, Microsoft has two goals for wireless networking in Windows XP: It must be seamless and configuration-free whenever possible, and it must solve the security concerns that the current 802.11b standard presents. For this reason, the wireless features in Windows XP are actually aimed at the business market, but they are applicable for home use as well.

For configurability, you simply insert an 802.11 card into a Windows XP PC—and it will install and auto-configure itself, without requiring the user to load drivers or reboot. In fact, switching networks also doesn't require rebooting; the process is also seamless, letting users roam freely from one network to the next. As long as users can be authenticated on the new network, they will be allowed on, no questions asked.

In Windows XP, Microsoft has also added support for something called 802.11X. 802.11X adds security features to the 802.11b standard, in the form of public encryption keys. In 802.11X, each user gets a unique key (in 802.11b, every user on a network has the same key). And Microsoft is tying the wireless network authentication to logon authentication, so the process will be seamless and, hopefully, painless. Time will tell.

Looking forward, 802.11-based networks will be fairly ubiquitous, and a 50Mbps version is coming down the pike. Colleges are wiring for 802.11b as the costs come down, as are businesses of all sizes (including airports, which provide wireless Internet access to passengers waiting for flights). Even coffee shops (e.g., Starbucks) are installing 802.11-based connection points for their customers. Soon, wireless networking will be as common as cell phones in some places.

What do you want to know about wireless networking? I have articles planned for the future about wireless Internet access, such as the access that Ricochet offers, and I'd also like to examine potential health risks. If you have any questions or comments about wireless networking, please drop a line!

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