Finding New Connections When Wi-Fi Is Not Enough

It’s wireless week here at Web Informant. My article in the New York Times today on new directions for WiFi was a fun article to report and work on, and also fun to get something into my favorite newspaper. One of the interviewees was with Rick MacKinnon, head of the Austin City Wireless project. He told me about an unique phenomena called “drive by WiFi” that has transformed one of the downtown parks that offers free wireless.

He’s seen usage at this particular hotspot rise, since he takes the time to review his usage stats. But when he went to the park he didn’t see anything different and there didn’t seem to be any large population of laptop-totting visitors around. Then he took another look, and figured it out. Given that Texas is usually hot and humid, the people with laptops are often in air-conditioned cars, so they can check their email and surf the Web in comfort. Only in Texas.

I have written before about WiFi as urbane renewal. In New York, having wireless has been one of the many things that has transformed Bryant Park from a drug den into a tremendous urban space, and I’ve noticed this in other cities as well.

The Times piece talks about how the success of WiFi has sown the seeds of its potential demise with new wireless technologies such as Zigbee, Cable-Free USB, and others that can extend its range and functionality.

Also worth reading this week, Glenn Fleishman talks about how wireless is also transforming where you’ll get your Internet access from, and how cable, phone, and broadcast TV providers are changing how they get Internet dial tone to you.

One Button Wireless Security

Most wireless networks these days operate without any encryption whatsoever. And while security professionals (and the FBI) try to make the point that this is a foolish practice, very few of us take the time to do otherwise.

I can’t tell you the wireless networks that are running in the clear at people’s homes who should know better: IT executives, corporate titans of industry, and computing professionals who are familiar with PKI and hacking tools. Why do so many people forgo encryption? There isn’t any one good reason. Setting up encryption over your wireless network often requires a Computer Science degree, plenty of patience, reading at least two manuals, or just dumb luck.

It could be that since setting up a wireless router has become so easy, and the routers themselves now retail at less than $100, that we have all become complacent. Maybe when you get unencrypted communications working you stop and are so thankful that you router is working at all.

Here’s more information and links to the products.

WiFi As Urbane Renewal

Since I moved here, I have found that there are two things that get Californians excited: free parking and free WiFi. Even better, how about places that offer free parking within a few feet of having free wireless access. The only thing better would be laptops with built-in cup holders for your lattes. Wait a minute, isn’t that what the CD drive is for?

Two years ago the City of Long Beach was one of the first to jump on this trend, and enabled free WiFi in a four-block area along Pine Street, one of the more pedestrian-friendly and restaurant-laden spots in the area. Then they turned on free WiFi at their airport, which has become a busy cross-country hub since Jet Blue started flying there and American had to match its service levels.

Read the complete essay here.

Desperately Seeking Wireless

So I am on the road, covering the RSA conference at the Moscone this week, and I am awash in wireless connection options. The only problem is, none of them work everywhere that I am, and all require some effort to enter the correct information. I am beginning to think that this wireless stuff is over-rated, and maybe that ole cat 5 isn’t so bad after all.

You can read more of this tale of woe here on Tom’s Networking.

Five Wireless Routers Reviewed

When it comes to the latest crop of wireless routers, the adage, “you get what you pay for,” applies. This product category has gotten wider and deeper over the past year–not only have products become more feature-rich, but you can now find routers that cost as little as $100 alongside others that are more than $1,000. Moreover, this year’s vintage includes products that can handle more than one radio frequency.

Read the complete review that was posted in VAR Business here.

A new idea: the wireless ISP

Comdex wasn’t any thrill this year: call it the demi-Comdex, the mini-me Comdex. But one meeting made the entire trip almost worthwhile. I spoke to a couple of guys who are doing a fixed-point wireless ISP. The concept isn’t new, but their timing may be perfect.

And these guys, who are from a company called Slice Networks in Nebraska, may actually be ahead of a very big development: last week Intel, IBM and AT&T endorsed their concept with a new company called Cometa Networks that will roll out a new nationwide wireless network.

What is so new about it? You can read the entire essay here.

Managing wireless networks for the enterprise

The great thing about wireless networks is the freedom to
roam about your campus, home, or office. The trouble is this
freedom comes at a price, and enterprise network
administrators are finding out that managing all this
mobility is messy and fraught with multiple complicating
factors, making wireless networks more of a burden than
dealing with wired connections.

The reasons have to do with a combination of poor tools and
the ad hoc nature of wireless networks themselves. The good
news is that many vendors are stepping up to the plate with
new products that can make some of this pain go away.

I got to see some of these products as one of the “Best in
Show” judges in the wireless category at the Networld+Interop
show in Las Vegas.

You can read the entire essay here.

The joys of wireless messaging (2003)

I would have written this column earlier, but I was having too much fun with wireless AOL Instant Messaging to take the time to write you all about it.

I haven’t seen an application energize this many people since, well, since the early days of wireless email c1992. Remember Radiomail? They were one of the early pioneers in providing wide-area messaging, and I recall sending and receiving messages after going through a turnpike toll booth (no, not when driving, I was parked on the side of the road, please give me some credit), only to have a cop stop by and ask me what I was doing. Ah, those were the days. Who knew from the Internet and dot coms back then?

Back when I was at CMP the first time around (as editor of Network Computing), the Radiomail application went through our staff like wildfire, and soon everyone was emailing each other rather than doing just about anything else, including paying attention at various meetings or writing their stories. The level of wireless emails got so bad that at one point we had to ban carrying the units into meetings so we could get some real work done.

As a side note, this pervasive multi-tasking continues apace today: when I was last in my high school networked classroom, I had great difficult getting my students to pay attention to my lesson because they were too busy surfing the net for their overnight CounterStrike ratings and catching up on their emails. This situation will only get worse as more colleges and schools install wireless networking, and as more students carry around laptops. At least in my wired classroom I was able to unplug the Ethernet jacks to get my students to pay attention to me. (It became a dramatic moment too, but I won’t get into that here.

Anyway, back to the present day. A couple of us at VARBusiness had received Palm i705s and as an experiment I downloaded the special wireless AIM software that works on it. I wanted to see how far things have come in the decade-plus since Radiomail. I was also motivated by the fact that I have to give a presentation this Monday at our local middle school on what parents should know about AIM. (If you are in the area and interested in coming, email me for the details.)

It didn’t take too long to install the Palm client, once I figured out that I also needed to update the Palm OS firmware as well. (The AIM web site, normally an example of clarity, mentions this in their FAQs, but they bury the factoid and don’t have the link to the firmware readily available. No big deal, but it would have been nice to know this up front.) It works pretty much like the desktop AIM client, including being able to view your buddy lists and insert smiley-faces into your conversations.

I found the same level of annoying connectivity that I initially had with Radiomail: the ability for anyone to reach me no matter where I was during the day. Several of my IMs were received during staff meetings, which began to take on the same level of rudeness that our early ones at Network Computing did (the only difference: in the present we don’t yet have the level of penetration and critical mass that we did with the early Radiomail devices). The difference, though, is a subtle one. Email is a store-and-forward system: you send a message, wait, and send one back. IM is very much an interactive setup: you are conversing, in near-real time, with several people, and your correspondents have a very low tolerance for waiting for your replies. I am not proficient at Graffiti, the handwriting recognition system for the Palm, so my replies took longer. All this interacting means the IM application is a lot more intrusive than plain old wireless email, and your colleagues’ tolerance for your multi-tasking will probably be a lot less.

We at VAR use AIM all the time now that the bosses are on it, and we have staff spread around the country. It is really a big time-saver, especially if you have to get a quick question answered. Some of us are better than others about setting up our away messages (when you are away from your desk you can set the software to tell your correspondents where or what you are doing, so they don’t get frustrated when they are trying to IM you and you don’t respond) and signing off at night when we leave the office. Having the Palm AIM client means you never are away you’re your desk: which means you feel more compelled to answer incoming IMs.

Nevertheless, we adults can’t hold a candle to the kind of usage my teenaged daughter has: IM is clearly her mission-critical app. She documents her movements and actions so completely on IM that one could write a book on her schedule and activities just from her away messages alone.

So I brought the Palm home and had her try it out. She very quickly was timing the delay in sending messages back and forth between a regular wired desktop and a second account that she had up and running on the Palm within a few seconds. (No, I didn’t suggest this, but she is her father’s daughter after all.) The average delay was around 5 or 6 seconds, and it wasn’t symmetrical, meaning that sending an IM to the wireless network took longer than receiving one. I didn’t have a ready explanation for that circumstance, but figure it is just one of those wireless network oddities.

But she didn’t extensively test the Palm, mainly because after a few minutes, she was back on the desktop, typing furiously to her closest dozen or so friends. She isn’t an expert on Graffiti either, although she did admit that with the Palm keyboard she would probably have continued to use the wireless version for a bit longer. She did point out (again without any prompting from me) that having AIM anywhere could get rude when one was in meetings or with friends, and I agreed with her. It remains to be seen if I end up carrying the Palm around with me or not.

In the meantime, please don’t IM me,




Evaluating the new wireless web applications (2000)

Back in 2000, I got rid of using my laptop and made do with borrowed computers and the local Kinkos. Here is a column that I wrote about that experience and the latest wireless technologies that were available.

I am not completely without technology when I travel, however: for the past year or so I have been using a Sprint PCS phone with its wireless web capabilities. Lately this has become more useful with several new applications available on the phone coupled with an offer of six months’ free data usage by Sprint. ( Let’s see what you can do with your phone besides make voice calls.

I tested several services, all of which (with one exception) are freely available once you register. The trick with most of these services is to setup an account with one of the application providers on your existing Internet-connected PC, and then have your phone nearby so you can follow on your PC the instructions to setup what you need on the phone. It isn’t very simple, to be sure, and sometimes I had to go through the entire sequence of steps more than once.

Most of these services allow you to access your email from your phone – either your existing POP Internet mail server or a special email account that is associated with the service provider. Some had additional features, such as access to your appointment calendar or address book, both of which you would need to enter the data from your PC’s browser if you want to retain your sanity. And a few applications had some other nifty features that I’ll get to in a moment.

After you set up your application, you’ll want to make a bookmark on the phone’s menu system so you can easily bring it up. One of the things you quickly learn with these phones is that every keystroke is precious and time-consuming, so the fewer keys to get to your applications, the better. On my Denso Touchpoint phone, this is found under the Help menu option – not as obvious as I’d like. And some of the applications have so many menu branches that it will drive you nuts pressing the buttons and scrolling around on the tiny screens available on most phones. If this is an issue, you might consider that many of these service offerings are also available on Palm VIIs or Palms with wireless Internet connections, but I haven’t gotten around to trying these out.

This is just a small sampling of service offerings available. There are probably dozens more, and hundreds to come.

  • Infinite Technologies. This is still the one service I use the most, including their web-based email system when I am traveling and using a borrowed machine. It is just for downloading your existing email account. Since you work directly with your own POP server, you can delete messages from the phone directly, unlike some of the other services that just collect the email and leave copies. The phone-based screens aren’t too cluttered, and sometimes their service is down but the messages are maddening obscure. On Infinite’s web site are great instructions on how to setup the service.
  • Yodlee. This is a very extensive web-based service that can connect to hundreds of various web sites, including financial, news, and entertainment. The implementation on the phone is less satisfying, mainly because the tiny screens make it hard to scroll through more than miniscule collections of information. And while their email service is extensive, I had trouble reading one of my POP providers, in addition to reading folders in My Yahoo email. The setup instructions are very helpful, almost to the fault of being too detailed. I’m not sure I would want to trust Yodlee to automatically login to my bank accounts and other financial data, though.
  • Yahoo Mobile. My Yahoo is the one personalized portal that I use the most on the home PC: it contains a page that everyone in the family uses to check the weather, find directions, and lookup the latest movie times. Yahoo already comes as one of the menu choices for the Sprint PCS phones, but you’ll need to bookmark it if you want to do an autologin to your own personalized My Yahoo page and collect your Yahoo email. From the phone you can access most of My Yahoo’s services, such as stocks, sports scores, weather, and so forth. And like MSN Mobile, you can set up a number of alerts to notify you when your stock price drops or when the weather changes. There is a bug in the address book that prevents dialing of phone numbers from your entry on the first try.
  • Visto, like Yahoo and Yodlee, has the ability to collect external POP email and also to synchronize its email with your own desktop (something I didn’t test). It has the same address book bug like Yahoo that prevents dialing of phone numbers on the first try.
  • Mobile MSN. Microsoft has beefed up its MSN service and it now comes close to My Yahoo in terms of customized features and information displays. Of course, you’ll need a Hotmail account to use the email features, and while you are at you might as well sign up for Microsoft Passport too. You can setup customized notification services, such as for when your stock price changes or when you receive email, although they are not very simple to setup. Microsoft is working on better documentation
  • MyDocsOnlin e. MyDocsOnline is one of the first services to support web folders, meaning that you can browse a directory on the web of your files in the same fashion as you would browse the files on your own hard disk. You can set up this service to send files from a common web-based storage area to others via email, using commands on your phone. You first have to upload the files via your PC and once they are in your storage area you can’t view their contents via the phone. Still, for users who do lots of traveling and can’t take all their files with them, this could be handy.
  • eFax Wireless. The only fee-based service here, eFax has long been one of my favorite ways to receive faxes in my email account. Now you can use your phone as a fax router and direct your inbound faxes to a real fax machine to view them, perhaps while you are standing nearby for delivery of sensitive documents. Fax forwarding requires a paid account, while notification of faxes is accomplished on the free accounts.