Microsoft is tackling the home network, releasing this week a wireless home networking product line designed to cut down the cost and complexity of sharing a single broadband connection between multiple computers.
The "Wireless G" products include connections for desktops, laptops, and even the Xbox.
"Networking causes fear and confusion," says Todd Greenberg, product manager. "But these products have come a long way. We have made them easy to set up and use."
Impetus for the product originates with Microsoft's findings that almost one-fourth of homes have multiple PCs; one-tenth of them have three or more. And many customers feel the need to share broadband between PC and gaming platforms, Greenberg adds.
The Wireless G product family has five members. The base station, a router with an integrated 802.11g wireless access point and four-point ethernet switch, costs US$109 and is the heart of the system. The Wireless Notebook Adapter MN-720 and Wireless PCI Adapter MN-730, each costing $89.95, connect systems to the network. The $179 Wireless Notebook Kit MN-820 contains the base station and a single notebook adapter, while the $139 Xbox Wireless Adapter MN-740 connects the popular game console to the wireless Internet.
The base station requires a broadband connection driven by a modem with an ethernet output (some older modems, which connect through a USB port, will not work). It has four ethernet ports for local connections, and the base station, according to Microsoft, can "connect as many computers as you need in your home network."
To conquer the perception that networks are difficult, the Wireless G family depends heavily on idiot-proof software wizards for setup and diagnosis.
"The user doesn't need to know any of the technical settings in order to set up the network," Greenberg says. "The wizards walk you through the whole process, check to make sure than the base station is hooked up correctly, and will identify and isolate any problem."
True network-phobes will be happy to hear about a backup strategy: Microsoft is providing a toll-free 24/7 technical support number for Wireless G customers. This contrasts with the long distance, fee-based structure it uses to support most of its other products.
As a certified 802.11g wireless networking solution, the Wireless G environment claims up to five times the speed of a typical 802.11b wireless network. Microsoft claims the system can connect over a distance of up to 1500 feet in an open environment but connects over a considerably smaller area--350 feet--when it has to penetrate walls and other obstructions (although this is enough for most houses). The company says users can expect throughput of between 16 megabits per second and 54 Mbps.
The Wireless G base station contains a hardware firewall and parental controls, controllable by the system administrator (or, given the target environment, "Mom and/or Dad"). Additionally, the software contains a 26-character security key, to prevent data overlap when there are several networks running in close quarters.