Less, and more, than meets eye to MS Wi-Fi push

A bid for volume based on branding standard hardware?

Microsoft's wireless networking products, announced earlier this week, are apparently truly wonderful, but on (slightly) closer investigation their wondrous nature remains somewhat opaque. They are, it appears, badged Linksys products, and the US prices quoted in the announcement seem in line with what's being charged for those very same Linksys products at, say, Best Buy.

So what's so marvellous? It is, it says here, that "Microsoft Sets New Standard for Ease in Wireless Broadband Networking." This consists of the following. A setup wizard detects "the computer's Internet service provider (ISP) and modem settings and automatically [configures] the Microsoft Broadband Networking Wireless Base Station and PC." Which may or may not be tricky and/or a boon, depending on what they mean. They may of course just mean that they're busily gathering money from ISPs in exchange for inclusion. Again. Setup also copies the setting to a floppy (yuck) in order to make it easier for you to set up other machines. This would appear to relate to the peculiar 'set up a home network' procedure in XP, which has always struck The Register as a little pointless, given that XP tends to be pretty good at discovering network connections anyway (and then maybe doing other things involving networking, but we're not talking about that here).

The settings disk does provide you with a handy way of not having to mess around with encryption keys, and as 128-bit WEP is turned on by default, you could say Microsoft is doing its good citizen bit by ensuring the bulk of customers end up with a fairly decent level of security, because it's actually going to be a tad harder for them to turn it off than to just do what it says on the box and leave it switched on. We foresee trouble, however, if you've never ever had to see your encryption key and find yourself trying to connect something without a floppy or even (yike) without a Microsoft operating system on it. There are, incidentally, Linux drivers for at least some of the Linksys kit Microsoft is badging, and these wil presumably work so long as nobody's done anything childish under the badge.

Besides encryption, there's a built-in firewall and NAT, but really none of this is any kind of breakthrough in the wireless business these days. Essentially Microsoft has added a few minor twiddles, its brand and its muscle to making an impact on, or money out of, the wireless market. If the exercise is successful, we'd expect Microsoft to intro its own hardware using 'Soft Wi-Fi,' a Windows-only version of wireless that reduces cost by handing off processing to the OS.

Microsoft is however bringing something rather more significant than a setup wizard and some badged Linksys gear to wireless. It has set up a wireless networking destination page that is clearly designed to provide a one stop shop for purchasing and support. It also, incidentally, appears to be willing to let you buy the stuff online, even though the links to Microsoft's channel partners (Best Buy, Amazon, the rest of the gang) just lead to 'no product in stock' pages right now. We can't be absolutely certain about this, but we could get as far as the checkout page where you fill in your credit card, and you cannot seriously expect us to go any further than that.

As regards the support stuff though, credit where credit's due, what's up so far seems fairly well-pitched towards bringing networking tyros on to understand what they're doing in easy stages. Teaching them what a MAC address is and how to clone it does not exactly strike us as 'making wireless networking a snap,' but given the current state of the technology, which is really only a snap at the basic stage, the site looks like it could develop into a useful resource which - by happy coincidence - could sell Microsoft a lot of hardware. So, two out of ten for hardware innovation, nine for cunning sales strategies. ®

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