WLAN = Windows Wireless Networking?

Microsoft Corp. is talking up a "soft WiFi" project at its WinHEC conference in Seattle that aims to shunt most of the legwork currently done by wireless LAN (WLAN) cards over to the main processor of a laptop or PC, using networking software developed by the company.

In theory, this will make the whole experience of wireless LAN networking cheaper and easier for the user, because it will mean fewer components in a WLAN card. However, it could also have certain fringe benefits for Redmond -- such as shackling the emerging wireless LAN market exclusively to the Windows operating system [insert insanely evil cackle here].

Microsoft is proposing the creation of a software "radio" that will handle many of the tasks currently undertaken by a hardware radio chip, which is usually the most expensive component in a WLAN card. It is not yet exactly clear how all this will work technically, and Microsoft isn’t saying. However, the company is likely to initially support 802.11b with this project, since the software is aimed at the home networking and small business market. Implementing the processing in software could make upgrades to the 802.11 standard easier, possibly removing the need for different card for each specification.

"This is a smart move by Microsoft, and they managed to do the same thing with printers," reckons Johan Montelius, senior analyst at the Zelos Group LLC. "The drawback is, of course, that WLAN cards will be sold that only work with a Windows OS."

In the long run, this technology could shackle 802.11 to Windows, shutting out the possibility of using the technology with other operating systems. "Will access points be 'windows only'?" asks Montelius. "If all cards adopt the Microsoft strategy, it will be harder for the Linux community to get the cards running, the same problem that they have today for almost any hardware."

This could be bad news for companies such as open-source wireless access point developer Sputnik Inc. Sputnik has developed software that can convert an Intel-based laptop or PC with a wireless card based on the Prism 2 chipset into the central hub of a WLAN network (see Sputnik to Put WLAN Networking Into Orbit?). As it stands, it is not clear that Microsoft’s planned WiFi software will play nice with Sputnik’s software, because it is by no means certain that the Microsoft software will support legacy WLAN architectures such as the Prism 2 chipset design.

However, Arthur F. Tyde III, CTO at Sputnik, takes a calm and measured approach to the whole concept. "Ugh! Winmodems suck, smells like Winmodems to me" he says. "I expect to see the next Outlook virus poking holes in a company’s wireless network by corrupting the WiFi software. It's a scary embrace and extend play. Run screaming!"

These conflicts could be just the tip of the iceberg: Depending on how the software "radio" is implemented, Microsoft’s move could affect a whole lot of companies in the industry.

It's hard to say how easy it would be to rejig existing software to work with the Microsoft WiFi software. "One question is how much [of the WLAN radio processing] is handled in the OS and how much is placed in drivers provided by the card producer," says Zelos’s Montelius. The more processing handled by the OS, the more difficult it will be to support legacy systems or wireless applications that are not "Windows approved."

Tragically, Microsoft could not find anyone to answer Unstrung’s questions on its WiFi Software project by press time.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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