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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 08:17 GMT 09:17 UK
The pitfalls of wireless computing
Computer consultant Bill Thompson guides us through the world of browsing the internet without the wires, in the first of his weekly columns.
My friend Simon is standing in the car park outside my flat. It's 10 o'clock at night and he's holding his laptop open, crouched over to protect it from the rain.
Stuck into the side of his shiny, expensive new laptop is a small card, slightly larger than a credit card, that connects his computer to other computers using radio.
It is one of the increasingly popular wireless network cards that are rapidly replacing messy cables in offices, homes and even cyber cafes around the country.
Sadly, this one is not doing what it is supposed to do, and Simon is getting cross. And wet.
I am sitting in the warm. On my desktop computer I have MSN Messenger open. It lets you chat to other internet users by typing messages which appear on their screen.
As long as he stays in the car park, visible to me and - more importantly - to the antenna of the wireless "hub" that is supposed to connect his laptop seamlessly to the internet through my cable modem - Messenger tells me he is still online.
But as soon as he goes out of sight and into his own flat, he drops off the edge of the network universe and vanishes.
The problem is the walls between his flat and mine. If we can see each other then we can connect, but between his living room and mine are five brick walls and they are too much for the relatively low-powered radio waves that are transmitting data to and from his system.
If we want to solve the problem we need to buy more hardware, effectively doubling the cost of the whole venture.
This is a shame for Simon as our local cable company won't connect him to the net for another two weeks and he is finding it hard to live without e-mail, online games and chat.
He'd like to be able to "piggy-back" on my network link, but so far this means early morning excursions to the car park when he wants to check his mail.
Forget the joy of wireless networking - this is just a pain.
Simon's not the only one with this problem. Another friend, Anne, has two computer-literate daughters, each with their own PC.
Instead of stringing cable all round the house she has set up a wireless network, but it won't work in the attic, where her younger daughter spends her time.
Despite all the claims that the usual network standard - called Wi-Fi or 802.11b - can reach 50 metres with ease indoors, hers cannot even get up two stories through a wooden floor.
As with so many other new technologies, wireless seems to promise a lot more than it can deliver.
It is disappointing and could well do as much damage to the idea of mobile access to the internet as Wap (wireless application protocol) on mobile phones did in 2000.
Getting connected is one problem, but there are also worries about making connecting too easy.
At the moment, anyone passing my flat with a suitable computer - one like Simon's for example - could simply tap into the network and, if I hadn't installed a special program called a firewall, even look at files on my desktop machine.
They can certainly surf the net through my connection, "stealing" my bandwidth.
This doesn't matter too much to me, and if we ever get the thing working then we'll improve the security.
Unfortunately, many large companies seem happy to install new wireless networks and never get round to changing the default security settings.
A serious break-in at a bank or insurance company could put a lot of people off wireless for a long time, which would be a shame because it is actually a very useful tool. It's just not quite ready for mainstream adoption yet.
When new technologies emerge from the research labs into the shops they are usually called leading edge.
They tend to be expensive, sometimes unreliable and often less useful than they pretend to be. It was cool having a DVD player three years ago, but there were few disks to buy.
Ahead of the leading edge is the bleeding edge, where the seriously hardcore techies get their fingers sliced off by the new toys they are playing with.
I'm a big fan of wireless networking, but the problems I've encountered with my friends, and the security issues they raise, make me think that they are not yet ready for the mainstream.
I bought my dad a computer for Christmas. He's in his seventies but has been getting on with it really well.
However, I think I'll leave him with cables and connectors instead of trying to install a wireless service - at least for another year or two.
The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it
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