Imagine that you’re working on an important new project. You took your laptop home last night so that you could surf for some cool pictures to download and add to the PowerPoint presentation you created for today’s meeting. This morning, you bring your laptop into work and pop it into its docking station, making a few last-minute additions and corrections to the presentation. At 8:55, you pop your laptop out and head down to the meeting, where you hook it to the projector, present your PowerPoint document, and then surf through a few competitors’ Web sites to give your peers a better idea of what you’re talking about.

After the meeting, you and your laptop take the half-mile walk over to the building where your CTO has her office. You meet with the CTO and give her the abridged version of the presentation, surfing a couple of competitors’ Web sites to give her some examples.

Finally, at the end of the day, you take two of your company’s developers out for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, where the three of you sit down, with your laptops, of course, and discuss some of the technical details of your proposal. Unfortunately, one of the developers forgot to print out an important document that the three of you were going to discuss. No problem. You simply make a VPN connection to the office and grab the document off the file server, and then you e-mail to the other two developers, who receive the file in less than a minute.

In this scenario, you roamed across four networks in five physical locations. If your laptop had been configured with Windows XP and a wireless network card, you would have had network connectivity at each stop and, better yet, you would not have had to do any reconfiguration as you roamed to each place. Of course, this assumes that each location had connectivity to a wireless access point, but with the rapidly declining prices of wireless hardware and the adoption of WLANS in corporations and public spots such as Starbucks, this is definitely a plausible scenario.

Wireless LANs in Windows XP
The kind of network roaming depicted in this example would have been much more difficult (impossible in most cases) in Windows 2000 and other versions of Windows. That’s because in Win2K, wireless networking configuration is handled primarily by third-party utilities that are installed along with WLAN network card drivers that come from WLAN vendors. The best part of Windows XP’s enhanced WLAN support is that driver and WLAN configuration are absorbed directly into XP’s NIC configuration, and WLAN network roaming is handled with precision and simplicity.

Here are the three major improvements that make WLANs work so well in Windows XP:

  • Zero configuration—The third-party drivers and WLAN configuration utilities used with previous versions of Windows can be described as inelegant, at best. Windows XP makes the process much simpler by automatically recognizing almost all WLAN network cards (eliminating the need for third-party drivers). To configure the WLAN, you simply go into the Properties for the network card, where you will automatically find an extra tab called Wireless Networks. There, you can choose from among available networks or manually configure preferred networks. This network configuration is smart, too. For example, it automatically detects when a wireless access point changes its channel ID, and if the system plugs into a 100baseTX landline connection, it tells the system to use that connection rather than the slower (11-Mbs) WLAN connection.
  • WLAN roaming—Our scenario showed an example of the kind of roaming that’s possible with the combination of WLANs and Windows XP. Multiple preferred networks can be configured in the XP Wireless Networks tab. This can even include options in which some of these networks use static IP addresses, while others rely on DHCP. Of course, the real coup is the fact that you do not have to reboot your machine, select any menu options, or perform any configuration activities. Once you have WLANs specified in your preferred networks, you can leave your laptop running and simply move from one WLAN network to the next. Your laptop will automatically change network configuration.
  • Better and easier security—Of course, no conversation about WLANs is complete without giving some attention to security. Fortunately, Windows XP also builds in measures that can make WLANs more secure and greatly simplify security configuration for administrators. XP implements support for Wireless Encryption Privacy (WEP) and IEEE 802.1X, which provides port-based, authenticated network access for wireless networks (although it can also be used for standard wired networks). Basically, the latter is built into network card configuration, and it makes it easy to configure RADIUS authentication, smart card authentication, certification management, and other standard security protocols that handle identity management and keep intruders from being able to infringe on corporate WLANs.

XP upgrade caution

One word of warning about zero configuration: If you have a pre-Windows XP system where you have installed a WLAN driver and utility, you need to uninstall that software before you upgrade that system to XP. Otherwise, there can be some conflicts, and you will probably encounter some errors and problems when attempting to use your WLAN card in XP.

Bottom line
Windows XP takes WLANs to the next level of functionality in a way that no single WLAN vendor ever has. Better yet, XP does not care what brand of WLAN network card you are using. It recognizes virtually every WLAN card available and simplifies their configuration into standard operating system menus.