Mobile & Wireless: Security was the Watchword in 2004

Opinion: In 2004, Wi-Fi got more secure, mobile moved forward and mesh networking came into its own.

Its no surprise that the issue that topped the Wi-Fi agenda in 2004 was the same one thats plagued it almost from its introduction. Security, or rather "lack thereof," was an inherent problem in WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), the native security spec in the 802.11 IEEE standard.

2004 was the long-awaited year for good news on that front, however. With the IEEEs adoption of 802.11i, the new Wi-Fi security standard that replaces WEP, security on 802.11-based Wi-Fi networks really does seem to be the equivalent of its wired counterpart.

802.11i officially replaces porous old WEP with the strong 802.1x authentication that the Wi-Fi Alliance embraced in its interim security mechanism, WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access). The new thing it brings to the table is AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). A dramatic leap forward in data encryption on both wired and wireless platforms, AES is the encryption standard that was approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Security Agency three years earlier.

There are those who argue that 802.11i, with its powerful new encryption and an authentication mechanism that blocks rogues through a mutual authentication handshake, provides greater security than many wired networks. There may be some argument for that if youre running 802.11i within the walls of an enterprise to a given number of users who dont often take laptops on the road. But with 802.11i, the security focus is rapidly shifting to how to secure laptop networks and mobile configurations.

AirDefense, Wibhu Technologies and InterLink have all recently introduced products to better manage laptop security configurations. Providers announced plans to secure wireless remote access. iPass implemented security upgrades for its enterprise customers and T-Mobile announced plans to bring 802.1x authentication, one of the chief protections in 802.11i, to its 4700 hot spots.

As more and more attention is focused on mobile security, it is not surprising that were seeing more threats, as well as solutions, in that realm. 2004 will also be remembered as the year viruses began to appear on mobile platforms.

First, a team of international researchers proved that a virus could infect mobile phones using the Symbian operating system. It wasnt long before another research team cooked up a proof-of-concept virus for Windows CE. And, whether it was true malware or a bad app, this month we saw a program called "Skulls" replace screen icons with skull images on Nokia phones.

The mobile space was full of dramatic developments in 2004. For one, we saw Verizon launch its first Bluetooth phone. And, in a move that caught many of us by surprise, Ericsson, the company that pushed Bluetooth from its inception as a short-range connectivity solution, announced it was backing off Bluetooth development.

Strong partnerships are also giving mute testimony to the emergence of the mobile market. Avaya, Motorola and Proxim joined hands to produce a collection of products that let users roam seamlessly between enterprise LANs and public cellular networks as they make phone calls. And 3G technologies finally began to emerge in a meaningful way that brought service to large markets in 2004. AT&T, for instance, rolled out plans to bring 3G wireless services to San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix, Detroit.

Increasing interest in 3G, smart phones and smaller formats made for less interest in handhelds. But PalmOne was not discouraged. It staked claims in both the handheld and smart-phone markets, unveiling its superfast Tungsten T5, and a new Treo smart phone, the 650. Sony, however, dropped production of its popular Clié handheld.

The Clié wasnt all we said goodbye to in the mobile market. Far short of its plans to set up some 20,000 wireless hot spots, Cometa Networks, a joint business venture of IBM, AT&T and Intel, suspended operations after only 18 months.

There was significant expansion in mesh technology as demonstrated, in part, by the presidential election debates, where some 3,000 journalists used a mesh network to file stories wirelessly. Mesh also found a place elsewhere on the national scene as Motorola and others deployed it in homeland security projects.

And the best news of all was that free Wi-Fi became a reality in many cities. Rio Rancho, N.M., is giving it to its residents for Christmas.


Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.