With integrated WiFi, many people are anxious to jump on the WiFi bandwagon, but purchasing a unit with integrated WiFi may turn out to be an expensive mistake.
WiFi in its ever growing popularity has spawned a new series of handhelds with integrated WiFi, and many people are running out to buy the latest and greatest. Could this turn out to be an expensive mistake? I believe so.
If you look at the specifications for most wireless cards as well as PDAs with integrated wireless, you see 802.11b support. 802.11b has been the standard for wireless networking for years, so one might think that an integrated 802.11b card would be a safe gamble. Unfortunately, what many do not know is that 802.11b is now being used in conjunction with a new IEEE protocol called 802.1x, and is growing in popularity rapidly. 802.1x uses the EAP protocol, or "Enhanced Authentication Protocol" and is used for securely authenticating users on a network. It allows you to enhance your wireless security by providing username/password authentication using a backend RADIUS database, assigning dynamic WEP keys, and much more. Many large scale corporations (rumored to include Microsoft) and colleges (such as MIT and Georgia College & State University) have already implemented 802.1x on their network to provide these secure authentication services. Since it's an IEEE protocol, it's also widely accepted by the engineering community. It's not a replacement for 802.11b, but rather a supplement providing secure VPN-like services.
So what's the catch? 802.1x requires an 802.1x-compatible wireless card. A simple 802.11b card will simply not work. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ed Boyd, the technology director at Georgia College & State University, who told me several stories of college kids who just went out and blew a hundred bucks on a brand new wireless card, and were devastated to find out that it didn't run on their network. "I'd sit there with them and set the software up right in front of them to show them that it wasn't going to work."
What's worse news for PDA users is we haven't found a single PDA with integrated 802.1x support, nor have we found very many CompactFlash (CF) cards to support it. As of now, 802.1x is primarily supported by PC cards, although CF and integrated models are surely on the way. Without 802.1x support integrated into your card, you'll find yourself without a connection on any of these networks.
In January 2003, two software manufacturers will release their own 802.1x client (Funk Software's Odyssey and Meetinghouse Data Commications' AEGIS), and 802.1x will reportedly be supported by Windows CE.NET.
So what does all this mean? With support from Microsoft and two leading software manufacturers (not to mention the contributions of this great new protocol for the security community) the new 802.1x protocol is likely to continue taking off at the rapid rate it has already started at...which means if you were one of the few unfortunate ones to purchase a $700 PDA with integrated 802.11b, you'll find yourself needing to snap on another $150 card or upgrade your PDA. It's not every PDA user's dream to have two network cards running on the same handheld, and most definitely not every PDA battery's dream.
Before considering a PDA with integrated WiFi, check the product specifications and make sure it supports 802.1x...and if you find one let me know! If not, you're better off buying a bare PDA and a flash card and saving yourself a few hundred bucks next year, not to mention having a PDA with obsolite hardware.