Time to plug in to Wi-Fi

The state of Wi-Fi today

I love The Village. Where else can I work and sip a US$6 tea while watching: great-looking NYU girls who are too young for me; a guy jumping up every five minutes because he's got more gadgets on his belt than Batman and doesn't know which one is vibrating; and another guy apparently dressed as a pirate from the waist down arguing with a food-challenged model about who has dibs on the bathroom. The model just accused Blackbeard 0.5 of not having any class. Meanwhile, she's wearing a t-shirt three sizes too small that appears to say "Too drunk to [#$%@]" for which she probably paid $300. You can't beat that.

But what makes all this procrastinating through urban edutainement possible for me is the fact that I can get wireless at Starbucks. Which winds us around to our topic of the week: Wi-Fi today. "Geeks in Paradise" blogger Brian Chee and I are finishing a State of the Wireless piece this week based on some testing we did in the lab this past summer. But as a teaser, it's worth discussing why Wi-Fi should stay on your cool-tech radar for the foreseeable future.

Many network administrators have done one of two things with wireless: either removed it entirely because they just got tired of the signal problems and security hassles, or got it working enough that they can simply forget about it and use it simply as another connection medium.

Sadly, the first problem is more prevalent than you might think. Sure, getting a Linksys access point to put up a green link light so easy even the [Geico caveman could do it. But that's simply not enough for an enterprise network. Not enough reliability, not enough manageability, and definitely not enough security. Enterprise wireless is definitely still a noticeably different kettle of carp than Wi-Fi-ing your den. And many network administrators either don't have the skill set or the time to take care of it.

So outsource. One thing wireless' popularity has done is given rise to a class of network consultants that specialize in business wireless. These guys offer numerous benefits. For one, they can manage all that nasty security technology, as 802.11n still isn't here yet to make that easy. That management includes more than just configuring passwords. It should also include single sign-on integration with AD and client perimeter security such as NAP or NAC.

They can also accurately do a site survey of your building or campus to determine exactly how your wireless APs should be laid out. They're sophisticated enough that they can vary antennas and signal strength per access point enough that your signal won't bleed over into other offices or just the street where some teenie bopper with a PSP is looking for a free Internet connection. And most important, they can maintain your signal strength.

That last one is critical to what you can do with wireless once you get these pesky physical problems out of the way: Run cool technology over your Wi-Fi links. Without a steady signal strength, you risk connection hiccups. Today's wireless clients can probably recover from that for day-to-day data dumps, but things like voice over IP start dropping calls and losing sound quality faster than this bathroom-battling model next to me can throw dirty looks.

And what you'll see in our upcoming wireless work article is that voice and wireless are definitely headed for a collision. Straight wireless voice already exists, even from mainstream companies like Avaya or Toshiba. These are just VoIP handsets that connect to a PBX via 802.11x. But some of the cool stuff that Brian and I saw will allow you to assign a local office phone number to an employee's corporate cell phone and then have that phone seamlessly switch between a local 802.11 connection or a third-party cell network -- without dropping a continuing call.

We tested some stuff from a company called DiVitas, which is a great little company, though its PR rep seems to be a little infatuated with me. But the technology is here and clear today.

And companies such as Microsoft definitely see this trend rumbling down the pike. Windows Mobile 5.0 is set to rev to 6.0 sometime early next year. Meanwhile, Redmond is upgrading existing phone features such as Voice Command, which just went to 1.6. New features there include spoken e-mail notification, spoken caller ID, and voice-controlled system commands like system utilities, calendar lookups, and even media player. One the server side, Jamie Bernstein and I already tested out Exchange 2007 and found that it's been optimized for push e-mail delivery.

So 2007 may be the year of Vista and (hopefully) Longhorn, but once that stuff is settled, leveraging these new platforms for technical oomph, glitz, and job security is almost certainly going to push you in a wireless direction. So take advantage of the lull and get your Wi-Fi networking ducks in a row now.

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Oliver Rist

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