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June 2, 2004

WiFi for the Masses? Not so fast.

WiFi is a good example of advertisers, retailers, and everyone else trying to make a buck off the average home user. Networks without wires sound great to owners of older homes (or cheapskates), and even better is the idea of a box that magically not only networks your computers, but connects all of them to the internet!

But recently I've been following along at a forum I frequent as an Average Computer User attempts to get her PowerBook online using the router/access point she was provided with her cable internet service.

And this, ISPs, is why giving people WiFi without a hand is a horrible idea. She's lost. Doesn't know the name of her access point (the SSID, if you want to get technical). Doesn't know if there's a password. Doesn't know how to get at the administrative interface.

Based on the manufacturer, which is all she's (not surprisingly, as you're increasingly lucky to find a prominent model number) able to concretely offer, I know the default configuration and have contributed it -- and instructions, if the configuration is still set that way -- to the discussion. In the mean time, with that default configuration, her entire network is merrily exposed to passersby.

Telephone and cable companies are giving these things away, but then expecting the new owner to actually read the manual. Ain't gonna happen, folks.

And worse, the units themselves still have administration interfaces only a geek could love. With the terminology they're throwing at a mass-market audience, they're only going to get a mix of pissed off customers and a lot of time on the phone with tech support. While it gives people like me a steady source of income, it's way too difficult for Suzie Homemaker to set up WiFi for the kids.

Things only get more complicated when you consider that many WiFi access points will go into "network expansion" mode when two of them have the same name. With D-Link, for example, shipping every unit with the name set to "default", an attempt to start your home network may result in several hellish hours before a return trip down the highway to Fry's Electronics.

Before giving away WiFi with broadband makes sense, four things need to happen:
1. Access point vendors need to slap a pretty face on their interfaces.
2. WEP needs to ship enabled
3. Simple follow-along quick setup charts/posters/whatever should be packed in with the device. Preferably not in Engrish.
4. Windows XP SP2 (which is much more wireless-savvy than SP1) needs to come out.

If you've been around the WiFi block, you're probably looking at the first three demands and thinking "but Orinoco already did most of that!" Indeed they did, but they don't have much to show for it now, and the current off-the-shelf products (which Orinoco's never were, the OEM market being their core) don't even begin to approach their quality.

Wireless networking could be a revolutionary technology for a lot of homes, but just not in the state it's in. We've actually somehow managed to move backwards (with the exception of Apple's AirPort) in the three years since I purchased my original Orinoco card and Linksys WAP11 access point.

Posted by Colin at June 2, 2004 12:22 AM

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