At the beginning of 2002 in TidBITS-612, I wrote "Peering Into 2002’s Tea Leaves," an article that made some general predictions about which topics would garner the most attention this year. In it I said, "it’s clear that 2002 will be another step on the ascendence of 802.11 wireless networking." It’s somewhat ironic that while I can certainly move that prediction into the "Win" column, at the time I had no idea how involved I’d become with wireless networking later in the year by co-authoring my just-released book, The Wireless Networking Starter Kit (Peachpit Press, ISBN 0321174089).
Late one night at MacHack in June of 2002, I was talking about book ideas with my friend Richard Ford, who used to be the Open Transport product manager at Apple and is now a product manager in charge of the PacketShaper network management device at Packeteer. I’d recently finished my iPhoto Visual QuickStart Guide, and we were sitting in the lobby of the MacHack hotel with our laptops connected to the Internet via the wireless network that was being shared at all hours of the day and night by nearly every attendee of the conference. Given the way wireless networking had become ubiquitous at MacHack, Richard made a suggestion bordering on the painfully obvious – that my next book should be about wireless networking.
He had a point. In fact, MacHack was the second of three conferences around that time where wireless networking played a major role. A month earlier, aboard ship on the MacMania Geek Cruise, most of the speakers and a number of the conference attendees gathered each night in the ship’s library to soak up the 2.4 GHz radio waves and surf the Web while chatting with one another. And a month after MacHack, at Macworld Expo in New York, I broke one of my cardinal rules of trade shows and carried my iBook on the show floor every day, since it was so much easier to check email via one of the many accessible wireless networks at the Javits Convention Center than via phone from my room at the Paramount Hotel.
So when Nancy Ruenzel, Peachpit’s publisher, asked me at Macworld Expo in July what book I’d like to write next (publishers love to ask that, and I’ve learned it’s best to be ready either with a proposal or a good excuse), I floated the idea of a book about wireless networking that I would co-author with my friend Glenn Fleishman, who was making a name for himself as the publisher of the popular 802.11b Networking News weblog. As soon as I mentioned wireless networking, Nancy launched into a story about how she was having trouble setting up an AirPort Base Station to work with her husband’s PowerBook and… Clearly the book was a go.
Why Wireless? Seeing a lot of people using wireless networking wasn’t sufficient reason to write a book about the topic. The most important fact about wireless networking, from my point of view, was that it is utterly cool. Even though I’ve had a wireless network in the house from just a few months after Apple introduced their AirPort technology, I still get that little thrill of "Wow, this is neat!" every time I use my iBook to access the Internet via a wireless network, either at home or on the road. I’m also reminded of it every time I come up the driveway and see the 24 dB parabolic antenna attached to the side of our house, since it makes it possible for me to pick up a 1 Mbps Internet connection from several miles away. And the news stories that Glenn covers in his weblog every day run the range from soap opera (Intel, AT&T, and IBM backing a startup called Cometa that intends to install thousands of public wireless hot spots across the country by 2004) to science fiction (Vivato’s phased-array smart antenna, which promises to increase the range of wireless networks to entire buildings or portions of a city). It’s an exciting world.
But I find lots of technologies cool, and you don’t see me writing a book about how to use a TiVo, for instance. What sealed my decision to write the book is that wireless networking is easy enough to attract users, but suffers from plenty of gotchas that can make even people experienced with computer networks want to pull their hair out. It might be easy to connect your Titanium PowerBook G4 to your AirPort Base Station, but getting it all to communicate via your cable modem is another story. And why can’t you pick up the signal from the kitchen table, whereas your next door neighbors have no trouble accessing it and sharing your Internet connection, even when you don’t want them to? And after you locked down your network with a password, why doesn’t that password work for your sister when she visits with her PC laptop?
How Does It Help? Not since I wrote Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh back in 1993 did I feel that I had an opportunity to help so many people. And that, more than anything else, is why I drive myself for weeks or months to add writing and editing a book to all the other work I do. Here’s a look at how each chapter can help anyone who wants to understand, use, create, expand, or improve wireless networks.
Chapter 1 is an introduction to what’s neat about wireless networking to help readers get as jazzed about the topic as Glenn and I are. It’s also a good set of stories that can help convince your spouse, parents, office mates, or CEO that there’s utility in adding a wireless network for your personal or professional life.
Chapter 2 barely touches on wireless networking, but instead provides a crash course in the basics of traditional wired networking. Understanding how networks work makes troubleshooting much easier, not to mention the fact that setting up a wireless network still requires a good deal of traditional networking to connect your gateway to your Internet connection and to older computers.
Chapter 3 looks at how wireless networks actually work, from the basics of radios to the hardware you’ll need to set up and connect to wireless networks using different types of computers.
Chapter 4 offers step-by-step instructions on how to configure your computer to connect to existing wireless networks. We cover both Windows and Macintosh in this chapter (and throughout the entire book) because wireless networking isn’t just platform agnostic, it’s also a great way to connect the PC laptop the office gave you with your iMac at home.
Chapter 5 provides similar step-by-step instructions on how to set up an entire wireless network, but also gives you a detailed approach for planning out your network before you accidentally buy unnecessary hardware. Also included is information on how to connect two networks, such as might be in two buildings separated by an alley or even several miles, via cheap wireless bridges.
Chapter 6 looks at the complex topic of wireless network security and makes practical recommendations about the level to which you should be concerned about someone eavesdropping on your wireless traffic and what to do about it. We also talk about a new, improved security standard that should be available by next summer.
Chapter 7 helps you learn how to find and use wireless networks while you’re traveling. Finding wireless networks is the hardest part, but we also offer some hard-won advice on the best ways of using wireless networks on the road.
Chapter 8 contains all the information I wish I’d known when I set up my long-range wireless Internet connection. We don’t expect all that many people will want to connect two wireless networks over distances of many miles, but those that do have a lot of learning in front of them, and this chapter provides everything you need to get started, along with some pictures of my setup. This chapter might also open your eyes to creating short or long hops for wireless networks that you wouldn’t have considered. For example, when TidBITS Managing Editor Jeff Carlson moved closer to the office he shares with Glenn and others, he and Glenn looked at topographical maps to see whether spanning the 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to his new home was practical. (It wasn’t.)
Chapter 9 could be the most useful chapter for many people, since along with the general troubleshooting guide that I published back in TidBITS-652 and TidBITS-653, it offers numerous suggestions and tests for solving common wireless networking problems such as your wireless network adapter not connecting, poor signal strength, intermittent signal, inaccessible locations, no Internet access, and more. We anticipate expanding this chapter over time as we hear from more users via the new Wireless Starter Kit Forum on our Web site.
Chapter 10 wraps up the book with brief looks at a number of the pie-in-the-sky technologies (or more accurately, blimp-in-the-sky technologies) that could change the face of wireless networking in the future.
For more details, you can download a 1 MB PDF that has the first chapter and eight additional excerpts containing 60 pages from throughout the book (which is a total of 336 pages).
Buying Details — When writing this article, I was amused to see what I’d written when first announcing Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh in TidBITS-195 from September of 1993. Given that Amazon didn’t exist yet, ordering online was possible only through email, and it seemed extremely cool that Hayden offered a 20 percent discount with a special coupon code.
You can still buy my new book from your favorite local bookstore (though probably not in time for Christmas), but ordering online has become far easier, cheaper, and sometimes faster. For The Wireless Networking Starter Kit, I’ve negotiated with Peachpit to provide a 30 percent discount to TidBITS readers (use coupon code PE-Y2AK-TIDF during checkout on the Peachpit site via the link below to get the discount), and they’re even offering free UPS Ground shipping at the moment. You can also order from Amazon if you want to make the book part of a larger order. Either ordering directly from Peachpit with the special coupon code or using the Amazon link below works through our affiliate program, so Glenn and I make a few bucks more per book than through other channels. (Note that Peachpit is still working on getting their parent company’s backend database to use the correct cover art: the orange and green radio waves were a placeholder cover that we replaced with illustrator Jeff Tolbert’s excellent cityscape.)
If any questions or problems arise surrounding purchasing from Peachpit, just let me know and I’ll see if I can track down an answer for you.
If you’d like to help me out, the best thing you can do is to spread the word about the book to others involved with wireless networking. Make sure to give them the Peachpit discount code so they can get the book cheaply too. If you’d like to review the book for a publication, let me know. And if you know of anyone who might be in a position to sell or recommend the book, such as people who work in an Internet cafe, coffeehouse, or ISP that does wireless, have them send me email at <[email protected]> and I’ll see what I can do to set them up with special discounts or other deals.
Frankly, I’m extremely happy with this book. I think Glenn and I did a good job of including all the information anyone short of a wireless network engineer would want. From what I’m seeing, wireless networking is in certain ways where the Internet was back in 1993. The title of The Wireless Networking Starter Kit isn’t an accident – this book really does follow in the footsteps of Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh in many ways. I can only hope it helps as many people.