- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

I reached the conclusion over the irretrievable loss of six hours that a company's product should work, out of the box.

This heartfelt realization comes after wrestling with the "new and improved" Apple Computer AirPort version 1.1, a wireless networking "base station" that is supposed to let you wander around your home or office with a portable computer yet maintain a connection to the Internet.

While more of us are working at home, and that can be nice, being able to step away from it can be even better. If there are young kids in the house, for example, you may need to work in proximity to them, at times. Or, if it's a nice spring day, computing from the deck or patio shouldn't be a hassle. Why should wires and cords be an issue?

Even in an office, there's a good argument to be made for a wireless network: much of our time seems to be spent in meetings; toting notebook PCs is not uncommon. That being the case, why not have access to needed files and e-mail while away from your desk?

I saw the positive side of this at the recent Mobile Insights 2000 conference in Palm Desert, Calif. (www.mobileinsights.com). There, Wayport Inc. of Austin, Texas, (www.wayport.com) demonstrated a wireless local-area network running at 11 megabits per second. All it took was inserting a PC Card into a notebook computer, and one was "good to go" in connecting to the Internet. For about 150 of the 400 attendees at the conference, it was just like being back at the office, or better: speeds were blazingly fast and I could send and receive e-mail while sitting in conference sessions.

As an experiment, I decided to upgrade, over the wireless network, my portable's version of Microsoft Internet Explorer. The new software was contained in a 17 megabyte file, which took less than five minutes to download. Installing the software burned up more time than downloading it, something you couldn't say for a dial-up connection.

These wireless connections come via a technical standard known as IEEE 802.11, which discusses how radio networking in the 2.4 gigahertz band should operate. The standard is designed to ensure that products from different makers work together.

Which brings me back to the Apple AirPort. When it debuted last fall, some critics panned it as difficult to install and operate. Apple says the new version fixes those problems.

One complaint that it was tricky to install the wireless antenna card in the iBook seems to have been remedied. One needs to be careful when doing the installation, but it works if one follows the instructions.

However, the same doesn't seem to hold true when it comes to making the entire system functional: After an investment of six hours, including what added up to about two hours on the phone with tech support, the fix doesn't seem to be in. I could not get the unit to operate with my cable Internet service, and at this writing, the Apple iBook and the AirPort base station aren't "talking" to each other. Forget about my ultimate goal, which is to get some other products using 802.11 wireless antennae to work together.

It's a shame: The AirPort base station sells for $299; the AirPort card for various Macs is only $99. By contrast, Compaq Computer Corp. sells its wireless "access" point for $899 and wireless cards for desktop and portable PCs at $199 each. The lower prices will help popularize wireless networking; I would expect that Compaq and others ultimately will drop prices as well.

But no price high or low is worth it unless the stuff works. The need is for companies to do a better job so that things work out of the gate. While I get paid, more or less, to spend six hours to make stuff work, most people don't.

Apple mobile products director Greg Joswiak said that the AirPort device was incompatible with the MediaOne RoadRunner cable Internet service I use. The product would "work great with DSL" service, he said. Mr. Joswiak said the firm was working on resolving the MediaOne compatibility issue, as well as the fact that there were compatibility issues using the AirPort with some other cable Internet services.

While it is true, as Mr. Joswiak from Apple Computer states, that no networking product can be 100-percent compatible in a world of constantly changing network services, I also believe that a major new release, billed as a "fix" for earlier problems, should run as smoothly as possible.

At the same time, an article at the on-line site News.com (www.news.com) indicates Apple has another technical problem: put your iBook or PowerBook into "sleep" mode when the system is low on available memory, and you could trash your hard disk. An Apple Computer statement indicates this is a "rare" problem, but, again, I'd hate to be the one to whom this happens.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002, send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page (www.markkellner.com).

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