Wireless hits the (hot) spot

Sooner or later, you'll go wireless.

Since 1999 Apple has sold a technology it calls "Airport" allowing Mac users to connect to a network via a base station that broadcasts a signal to any Mac equipped with a $99 Airport card. All current Mac models include a slot for such a card.

As long as the Mac remains within the 300-foot range of the base station, which itself can be plugged into an Internet connection, that Mac can connect to printers or other Macs on the network as well as surf the Net.

The very same technology exists for Windows users, and its use is spreading rapidly. As more and more people experience the freedom of wireless computing with a laptop, they're finding they don't want to live without it.

According to a February report from Instat/MDR of Scottsdale, Ariz., shipments of wireless equipment to home users in 2002 grew by 160 percent over the previous year.

Business travelers are starting to expect a wireless connection -- "Wi-Fi," as it's called -- in their hotels. Over the past couple of years, places like Starbucks coffee houses have turned their locations into "hot spots," where anyone with a wireless-capable laptop can join the network to surf the Net and check their e-mail while sipping a latte.

Wireless fever has even spread to McDonald's Corp., which announced last week a pilot program to offer one hour of wireless Internet access in 10 of its Manhattan locations with the purchase of an "Extra Value Meal." Those who prefer to surf without ingesting McDonald's food can get an hour of wireless online time for $3.

Wi-Fi at McDonald's is the first salvo by Cometa Networks, a company formed last December by tech industry heavyweights AT&T, IBM and Intel to build a national network of 20,000 hot spots by the end of 2004. Cometa plans to focus on the nation's top 50 metro areas, aspiring to wireless access within a five-minute walk in urban areas and a five-minute drive in suburban communities.

Cell phone company T-Mobile has announced plans to create its own national Wi-Fi network. Large-scale public Wi-Fi access will eventually become commonplace, with national Wi-Fi providers charging a monthly fee for mobile Internet access just as America Online does with home users now.

Mac users can partake of this revolution in communications technology because Apple adopted the universal 802.11b wireless standard in its affordable and easy-to-use Airport products back in 1999. When it comes to Wi-Fi, Mac/PC compatibility issues have been practically nonexistent.

Thus, a Windows user with a laptop sporting a wireless networking card visiting the home of a Mac user can connect to his Airport base station with no problem. Similarly, Mac users with Airport cards in their iBooks or PowerBooks can access any wireless "hot spot," be it in an airport, a hotel lobby or a McDonald's.

In keeping with its reputation for trying to stay ahead of the competition, Apple introduced its next generation of wireless products, Airport Extreme, at the January Macworld San Francisco show. Apple says Airport Extreme is five times faster than the original Airport and will work with existing Airport equipment based on the ubiquitous 802.11b standard.

But in the rush to be among the first to adopt the faster protocol, officially known as 802.11g, some say Apple has jumped the gun. The "g" standard isn't scheduled to be certified until later this year.

Wireless protocols, as well as a lot of other technological standards, are set by a global body called the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.). In 1999 the IEEE created the 802.11b standard Apple used in the original Airport.

Because it hasn't been finalized, the "g" standard could change before it becomes official, but that hasn't stopped Apple or network hardware vendors such as D-Link from selling "g"-based gear.

As a result, research firm Gartner, Inc. issued a warning earlier this month to businesses not to buy any "g" products until it is certified.

Apple, though, is not worried that its Airport Extreme products could be rendered noncompliant by possible changes to the "g" protocol.

Apple spokesperson Nathalie Welch said the company is "very confident" that, if necessary, it will be able to update its Apple Extreme products via a software or firmware update "that will keep everything in sync with the ratified standard."

As an example, Welch pointed to the software update of Apple's original Airport base station's security protocol from 40-bit to 128-bit encryption.

Another potential monkey wrench is the existence of yet another next-generation wireless protocol, which the IEEE calls 802.11a. (Forgive the nomenclature; they're engineers, not poets.)

Both the "a" and "g" standards boast speeds five times faster than the "b" standard, which tops out at 11 megabits per second. Even at that speed you could transfer a typical four-megabyte MP3 file in less than four seconds.

The newer protocols have theoretical top speeds of about 54 megabits per second, which could transfer five MP3s in four seconds. (Actual wireless speeds vary with the quality of your connection and the distance your computer is from the base station.)

Apple decided to go with 802.11g for its Airport Extreme technology because the "g" standard will work with older equipment designed for the "b" standard Apple used in the original Airport hardware. Any "g" hardware communicating with "b" hardware automatically switches to the older, slower standard. Unfortunately, all the other "g" devices on the network slow down as well.

The "a" standard, on the other hand, does not work with "b" hardware and its signal doesn't travel as far as the "g" standard. The "a" standard's main advantage is that it supports more users.

So far it looks like the backward compatibility is winning consumers over to the "g" standard, while "a" looks like a better fit for business environments.

Ideally, the confusion and conflict of three different wireless protocols will be solved by equipment makers including all three standards in future wireless products. Thus, users wouldn't need to worry about whether they had "b," "g" or "a" -- everything would just work.

What's more intriguing about the new standards is their hefty speed increase compared to the "b" standard.

Recall that "b" can transfer data at 11 megabits per second. That's seven times faster than a typical broadband Internet connection via a cable modem (and, need I say it, vastly faster than a 56k dial-up connection).

The new standards, then, are something like 35 times faster than even a fast Internet connection. Who needs it?

Well, if you have multiple Macs on your home network, you could use the extra speed to transfer large files between them. Still, that's not something most home users do on a regular basis.

"There's no compelling reason now [for faster wireless transfer speeds], but there will be at some point," said Tim Scannell, president and chief analyst for Shoreline Research of Quincy, Mass. He suggested that the need would arise from the transfer of "multimedia content" such as video.

In other words, when your Mac is wirelessly connected to your TV via something like a TiVo device, you'll need the extra speed to transmit such things as digital video files, which tend to be very large even with the use of compression technology.

TiVo announced in January that it would make products that incorporate Apple's Rendezvous networking technology (Rendezvous-enabled devices can automatically discover and "talk" to each other over a network with no user fiddling whatsoever), hinting that swapping music, movies and photos between the den and the family room could be coming sooner than you may imagine.

I can hardly wait.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun