Microsofts exit from 802.11 hardware sales testifies to a management truism coined more than 20 years ago by management guru Tom Peters in his classic corporate opus, “In Search of Excellence”: stick to the knitting.
From the moment the company announced it was getting into the Wi-Fi hardware market, it looked like the company had dropped a stitch. It was arguable whether the software giant ever had any real reason to be there at all.
Its not that the Microsoft Wireless Notebook Kit, the companys 802.11g bundle or any of the earlier offerings in Microsofts year-and-a-half tenure in the wireless hardware business were bad. They werent. But what business did the software giant have going head-to-head with the likes of Linksys, Netgear, D-Link and the other hardware companies that were playing hardball in the SOHO wireless market before Microsoft ever arrived?
When asked why the company is now getting out of that game, a Microsoft spokesperson said, “It doesnt make sense to be in the category anymore.”
Fact is, it never did.
Microsoft is no stranger to hardware. The company has certainly had successful forays into the business. But its successes were mostly with products that had hooks back to its bread-and-butter business—Windows.
: The mouse effect”> The Microsoft Mouse, after all, effectively defined point-and-click computing on the PC. Together with Solitaire, the Microsoft Mouse introduced text-oriented veterans of the DOS environment to point-and-click. The mouse also provided Microsoft with a tidy revenue stream—but its real value came in driving public acceptance of Windows.
Fast forward to September 2002, when Microsoft introduced its first 802.11 hardware bundle—a cable, an access point and a wireless network interface card. It was a wireless network in a box, an easy-to-install package designed to jump-start home users in the world of wireless.
But, so what? The industry did not need Microsoft to get there, and neither did the SOHO market.
Linksys, Netgear, D-Link and the other vendors of affordable devices had already succeeded in defining—and delivering to—an eager market of SOHO users. Those companies already enjoyed a formidable presence on retail shelves; Microsoft was more at home on the other side of the computer store.
Whats more, those companies were already engaged in a price war that has since brought 802.11b offerings to near-giveaway prices, and is now rapidly bringing 802.11g products into the budget range of most PC-owning consumers.
Microsofts foray into Wi-Fi hardware barely merits analysis. The companys accomplishments on the software side of Wi-Fi development, on the other hand, show what Microsoft can do when it sticks to what it does best.
: The PEAP stitch”> Microsofts experience in developing PEAP (Protected Extensible Authentication Protocol) shows how powerfully it can influence the industry when it flexes its most formidable muscle—its operating system.
Microsoft produced PEAP in partnership with Cisco Systems and RSA Security at about the same time it began dabbling with Wi-Fi devices. PEAP was one of the many EAP fixes that helped plug the holes in WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), the original security mechanism in the 802.11 standard.
The Windows service pack that put PEAP support in the operating system shipped just weeks before Microsoft released its first wireless device bundle. While devices languished on retail shelves, PEAP succeeded in becoming an influential authentication protocol that helped allay IT managers Wi-Fi fears—at a time when headlines touted the exploits of war-driving hackers. PEAP and the other EAP types that brought authentication to the 802.11 landscape effectively opened the door to wireless in the enterprise.
Its an example of the kind of Wi-Fi initiative that deserves Microsofts attention. Just this week, the Trusted Computing Group announced that it is working on a new standard that will further secure wireless networks by enforcing up-to-date software patches, requiring clients to have them installed before they can access the WLAN. Who better to immerse itself in this effort than Microsoft, the patch-meister?
And as for what remains of Microsoft wireless devices, well, bundles like the speedy 802.11g Microsoft Wireless Notebook Kit will remain in the market until the pipeline is clear of them. The folks in Redmond promise to continue support, making them an excellent buy. And, hey! Theyre selling at blow-out prices. Who knows? Microsofts swan song in the market may just give Linksys and D-Link a run for their money.