Back in 1999, Apple started the ball rolling on wireless networking by releasing the inexpensive AirPort Base Station and providing an AirPort option for all Macs. Wireless networking is clearly here to stay – in addition to the increasingly common individual and corporate use of wireless networks, there were tons of AirPort Base Stations on the floor at Macworld. And, for the first time ever, Jeff Carlson and I managed to maintain Internet connectivity for the entire show without once dialing a hotel phone. Jeff has a Ricochet wireless modem that provides roughly 28.8 Kbps of bandwidth (a different device will get the newer and more expensive Ricochet 128 Kbps service in San Francisco, but we couldn’t acquire one in time), and he also has a Lucent WaveLAN PC Card that works with Apple’s Software Base Station. Put the two together, and my PowerBook’s Farallon SkyLINE Wireless PC card could connect to Jeff’s PowerBook, then access the Internet via Jeff’s Ricochet. Most interestingly, a few times when I was fiddling with the settings I ended up connecting to other nearby AirPort Base Stations. They had generic names ("Apple AirPort" and "Macworld") so I had no idea whose they were; perhaps people who don’t mind sharing some bandwidth in such a situation could put their email address in the name so people who connect can thank them for the connectivity.
Proxim’s Farallon division was at Macworld with a three-room "house" (it turns out you really can walk into an IKEA store and buy an entire room of furniture) set up to show off wireless networking. In addition to their existing SkyLINE 11Mb Wireless PC Card, Farallon was showing an extremely welcome addition: a SkyLINE PCI Card for older non-AirPort-capable PCI-based Power Macs (it’s basically just a carrier card into which you plug a SkyLINE 11Mb Wireless PC Card, so the SkyLINE PCI Card costs either $70 by itself or $240 complete). Also new from Farallon was the NetLINE Wireless Broadband Gateway, which differentiates itself from Apple’s AirPort Base Station by providing not only 802.11b wireless networking, but also two Ethernet ports, one for a cable/DSL modem and the other for a wired Ethernet. Those ports help make possible basic firewall capabilities, and the NetLINE Wireless Broadband Gateway software adds support for a variety of networking alphabet soup standards, including DHCP, NAT, PPPoE for DSL connections, and VPN with PPTP client and server pass-through. Farallon anticipates shipping the NetLINE Wireless Broadband Gateway in February for $400.
TechWorks was also showing a variety of differently configured AirStation 802.11b access points, its alternative to Apple’s Airport Base Stations. Although the price of an AirStation is comparable to Apple’s AirPort Base Station, the AirStation requires a Windows-based PC if you want to set it up from a machine on a wired Ethernet network. Also, although the AirStation line has four different models, only the $340 Local Router model offers anything unusual – in this case, an integrated 4-port 10/100 Ethernet hub.
More interesting for the future was Farallon’s release of a Macintosh driver for Proxim’s $130 Symphony PC Card, one of the products in the Symphony-HRF wireless networking suite. Symphony doesn’t use 802.11b – the technology behind Apple’s AirPort – but instead relies on a different 2.4 GHz wireless networking standard called HomeRF. HomeRF is currently slower than 802.11b (1.6 Mbps versus 11 Mbps), though Farallon noted that difference should go away by the middle of this year with the next revision of HomeRF. However, the main difference is that HomeRF is designed for applications other than data networking that require specific quality of service assurances, so later this year Farallon expects that we should start seeing consumer electronics devices that support HomeRF, such as cordless phones, stereos, video cameras, and more. Until that point, it’s probably worth just keeping an eye on HomeRF, but it has the potential to become quite interesting as a way of providing wireless connectivity to a range of devices. And if that happens, Apple may be forced to pay close attention, since wireless technology is definitely a key component of the new digital lifestyle focus.