Serving Hot Spots

Microsoft seeks to standardize setup; critics want more.

Noting the onslaught of WLAN hot spots in airports, hotels and coffee shops, Microsoft Corp. last week introduced software designed to standardize the configuration and management of Wi-Fi hot-spot services.

But as with many Microsoft ventures, critics complain that the service benefits only Microsoft Windows XP clients.

Microsofts Wireless Provisioning Services, due in beta this month, comprise client-side and server-side software, addressing issues such as security and logging in to a public Wi-Fi network.

The service provider or enterprise host sends provisioning and configuration information to the customers notebook as it connects to the corporate network or Internet. The network recognizes the customer and automatically sets up the session and bills the users account. The sessions are secured by the WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) protocol.

"This is an easy way for mobile customers to have a secure and consistent user experience through the hot spots," said Jawad Khaki, corporate vice president of Windows networking and communications at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash. "It adds to the wireless capabilities of Windows XP."

Microsoft is working with several WLAN (wireless LAN) service providers to encourage adoption of WPA, Khaki said. T-Mobile USA Inc. will begin a beta trial of the software this month. The commercial version of WPA will be integrated into the Windows XP service pack due early next year, Khaki said.

The software supports Windows XP clients and will support future desktop Windows versions. Critics say that this is not enough and that Microsoft needs to support more than Microsoft.

"Windows XP is hardly the be-all, end-all operating system for all devices," said Steve Durst, a network engineer at Skaion Corp., a computer security consultancy in North Chelmsford, Mass. "Im going to buy a CompactFlash wireless LAN card for my [Sharp Electronics Corp.] Zaurus [handheld computer] next week, and that runs Linux."

Microsofts competitors agree.

"We can already provide seamless connectivity to Windows XP users," said Gene Cox, director of product management for IBMs Pervasive Computing Group, in Somers, N.Y. "But our focus is on building an ecosystem and building products that support lots of platforms—more than just laptops and more than just Microsoft stacks."

WLAN support is becoming prevalent in more than just notebook computers.

Hewlett-Packard Co. last week introduced two iPaq Pocket PC devices, the h4150 and h4350, both of which support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The h4350 also includes an integrated, back-lit keyboard, said HP officials, in Palo Alto, Calif. In addition, the company introduced the HP iPaq Navigation System, a Bluetooth Global Positioning System receiver that lets users turn the iPaq Pocket PC into a navigation device.

HP also unveiled three lines of notebooks. The HP Compaq Business Notebook nc6000 and nc8000 support 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g WLAN connections and Bluetooth, as does the HP Compaq Mobile Workstation nw8000. All three lines include several new security features, including WPA.

In addition, HP introduced the HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1100, which also includes WLAN support. There are two models: One includes Intel Corp.s Centrino chip set, which supports 802.11b only, and the other includes Intels Pentium M processor, as well as a separate WLAN radio from Atheros Communications Inc. that supports 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g.

The iPaq h4150 is available for online orders now for $449. The h4350 is due next month, with an estimated price of $499. Pricing for the Business Notebook nc6000 starts at $1,649, and the nc8000 starts at $2,049. The HP Compaq Mobile Workstation nw8000 starts at $2,999, and the HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1100 starts at $1,849. The notebooks and the tablet are available now.

Meanwhile, Dell Inc. last week introduced the next generation of its Axim line of handheld computers, which run Pocket PC. At 5 ounces, the Axim X3 is 28 percent lighter than its predecessor, said officials at Dell, in Round Rock, Texas. The Axim X3 family includes the Axim X3i, which has integrated support for 802.11b WLANs. It costs $379.