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Microsoft and HP bolsters Wi-Fi

Microsoft will offer users of its Windows XP operating system free upgrades to boost wireless Lan security, a move analysts claimed would help alleviate security concerns that make some enterprises reluctant to embrace Wi-Fi.

Microsoft is offering a download of the industry standard Wi-Fi Protected Access Security (WPA) software as a replacement for older - and more easily hacked - Wired Equivalent Protocol (WEP) security software.

Using a built-in Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP), which runs on Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service network servers, WPA can help enterprises determine the identity of users accessing corporate Wi-Fi networks. 

WPA also replaces the static encryption keys in WEP with harder-to-crack dynamic keys through use of the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP), part of the draft IEEE 802.i standard expected to be approved in 2004.

WPA includes a message integrity check-sum called Michael that will help network administrators determine whether an unauthorised user has tried to intercept and decode TKIP keys. 

Jawad Khaki, vice-president of Windows Networking and Communications Technologies at Microsoft, said, "Many IT managers are hesitant to enable wireless connectivity in their organisations due to security concerns. Customers can have more confidence their data will be safer and more secure." 

Sam Bhavnani, an analyst at ARS, agreed that security remains the number one concern for business users in the booming Wi-Fi marketplace. Microsoft's decision to build WPA into XP will help alleviate those concerns because it will provide enhanced security that the end user "will not even have to think about". 

Bill Carney, a member of the board of the Wi-Fi Alliance-based industry group, said the addition of the security standard to Windows XP should "fuel wider adoption of [WPA] clients". 

Microsoft's move on the operating systems side today dovetails with developments spurred by the alliance on the hardware front. Carney said a number of manufacturers will introduce WPA hardware certified by the alliance at the Networld+Interop conference in Las Vegas next month. 

Carney, who is vice president for business development for wireless networking at Texas Instruments, said older Wi-Fi access points and client hardware from most manufacturers could be upgraded to WPA with firmware. In August the Alliance will refuse to put its certification stamp on any Wi-Fi hardware that does not offer WPA security. 

Hewlett-Packard has also introduced a line of notebook computers that support both 802.11b and 802.11g Wi-Fi standards. This is the latest in a string of announcements of products that do not adhere to Intel's Centrino Wlan architecture, which is built around the 802.11b standard only. 

While manufacturers line up behind the WPA standard, they continue to stray from the Centrino mobile wireless architecture backed by Intel. HP today introduced two Compaq Presario notebooks that feature mini-PCI cards that offer both 802.11b Wi-Fi connectivity at a raw data rate of 11Mbit/sec and 802.11g connectivity offering speeds up to 54Mbit/sec in the 2.4-GHz spectrum band. 

HP has based the dual-mode architecture on chip sets from Broadcom and Kevin Frost, HP's vice-president of worldwide notebook marketing, said the company opted for the dual chip set because it can deliver "extremely fast wireless connections". 

In January, Apple Computer announced that its two latest Powerbooks would offer wireless networking using 802.11g, which is backward-compatible with the slower 802.11b standard. 

Michael Sargent, ARS analyst, said the HP notebooks indicate that a number of PC suppliers have decided that Intel's Centrino architecture is "not cutting-edge technology".

Intel has said it would consider adding the 802.11g standard to Centrino later this year after the standard is ratified by the IEEE. 


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