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
• 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.