Wi-Fi still has a way to go, warns former Intel exec

Suppliers of wireless Lan equipment must work much harder to make their products more user friendly and to improve security...

Suppliers of wireless Lan equipment must work much harder to make their products more user friendly and to improve security features, a former Intel executive said yesterday.

Hours after a Cisco Systems executive speaking at the Wi-Fi Planet Conference & Expo proclaimed that Wlans are ready for the enterprise, Les Vadasz, who retired from Intel earlier this year, brought the crowd back down to earth when he told them that much work remains to be done.

Vadasz joined Intel in 1968 as part of the company's founding team. From 1991 until his retirement he was executive vice president in charge of Intel Capital and the chip maker's earlier investment programs. Intel is a supplier of Wi-Fi products and has invested in Wi-Fi companies.

The top priority that must be addressed for Wi-Fi gear is ease of use, Vadasz said. Only about a quarter of users can install their wireless equipment without assistance, and resellers complain that customers call for help even before opening the box, he claimed.

"Those of you that are involved in creating these products, I don't know what the hell you are thinking of. Are you designing these products for the fellow in the next cubicle, or for consumers?" Vadasz asked a crowd of Wlan product makers. "Grandma does not do SSID. SSID should never appear."

SSID, short for service set identifier, differentiates one Wlan from another. All access points and all devices attempting to connect to a specific Wlan must use the same SSID. At present, Wlan users often have to enter an SSID manually to connect to a network.

Security is the second priority, Vadasz said. More than two-thirds of network architects at large enterprises fear that adding wireless would compromise their network security, and more than half of executives see rogue access points as a serious problem.

"Wireless networks are easier to corrupt and easier to access than wired networks. There are solutions for this, but they are either not readily available or cumbersome," he said. Improved security from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11i working group is "overdue," he said, adding that he does not know if that is due to technical issues or because the group has become a "debating society."

Overall, Wlan is still a new technology. About 50 million people worldwide have clients able to access the 15 million access points installed around the world, Vadasz said - a small number compared with the number of people who have PCs.

The former Intel executive also cautioned companies not to go down a proprietary path but to stick to standards and keep their products interoperable. Furthermore, he warned that regulation around Wlans will become "messy," especially when voice over IP comes to wireless devices.

For the future, Vadasz sees a starring role for WiMAX, a new wireless networking technology that can reshape the way broadband internet access is delivered to users. WiMAX, also known as 802.16a, offers greater range and bandwidth than the Wi-Fi family of standards, which includes 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g.

Intel is a big backer of WiMAX, which promises to deliver connectivity at speeds of up to several megabits per second, and at relatively low cost.

Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service

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