Make Wireless Easier and More Secure

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Can you imagine making wireless networking more secure — while at the same time making it easier to set up?

That's the promise of a new technology that's quietly making its way into everyday products that'll be available to you in the next few months.

Quick and Easy Installation of Secure Wi-Fi

Microsoft is backing this approach under the name Windows Smart Network Key. In a nutshell, the new protocol will automate the establishment of a secure Wi-Fi network among various wireless devices in a home or office. The "key" to this is a small USB flash drive. Here's how it works:

Recognizing a Participating Computer. A flash drive that meets certain requirements is inserted into a computer's USB port. A small program on the drive opens a window that invites the user to configure nearby wireless devices into a secure network. Windows 98, 2000, Me and XP will support this process, with a special "Wireless Setup Wizard" appearing if XP has been upgraded to Service Pack 2 (an update that's expected from Microsoft this summer).

Adding an Access Point. If the user agrees to configure his or her wireless devices, Windows generates a random passcode (such as "eX5ha7Pf9ic") and stores it on the flash drive. The drive is then removed from the computer's USB port and inserted into the user's wireless access point. The access point recognizes the information in the flash drive and re-configures itself to support secure communications using the assigned passcode.

Adding a Wireless Printer. If the user has other wireless devices to add to the network, the USB flash drive is then inserted into those devices. A wireless printer, for example, would accept the information from the USB drive and begin communicating with the local wireless network using the passcode for encryption.

New Wireless Devices for a Communications Age

If you were paying attention, you might have noticed a big flaw in this "easy" wireless setup procedure. Most wireless access points currently don't have USB ports, and most printers don't print wirelessly.

The Wireless Setup Wizard is being driven by hardware manufacturers who plan to bring "easy-setup" wireless devices to market this fall. Including a small USB flash drive with every new wireless printer and access point could very easily pay for itself. Just reducing the technical-support calls from users who encounter Wi-Fi setup problems could save vendors millions of dollars.

Microsoft recently has begun demonstrating the technology using an as-yet-unannounced wireless Hewlett-Packard DeskJet printer and an access point made by AboCom. Both of these devices include the USB ports needed for a Smart Key to be inserted.

Since the setup program that must fit on the flash drives is small, the procedure can rely upon cheap, low-capacity units. USB drives that hold 32 MB of data are now down to as little as $14 at retail, and of course are much less than that in quantity.

Hold Those Purchase Orders For the Moment

Before you go online and buy new USB flash drives to take advantage of this, you should know about a few wrinkles that need to be ironed out.

Microsoft's technical documentation for Smart Network Keys requires flash drives to support certain mass-storage protocols in order to be compatible with the new scheme. There isn't yet a testing body that can certify which flash drives are compliant with these requirements. So we can't yet know for sure which units will work as Smart Keys, says Steffen Hellmold, president of the USB Flash Drive Alliance and general manager of Lexar Media, a flash drive manufacturer.


Microsoft is encouraging this "easy wireless setup" procedure as a way for hardware manufacturers to sell more wireless devices into the home. But the implications for business enterprises are huge as well.

Setting up new wireless devices in a corporation by merely sliding a USB flash drive into a port would enable lower-paid staff to handle the task. This would free up highly trained staff for more difficult assignments.

For more information, Microsoft's technical specifications for Smart Network Keys are posted at its Hardware and Driver site.

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