Microsoft bolsters Wi-Fi security in XP; HP unveils 802.11g laptops

Microsoft Corp will offer users of its Windows XP operating system free upgrades to beef up wireless LAN security, a move analysts said today will go a long way toward alleviating security concerns that make some enterprises reluctant to embrace Wi-Fi.

In a related Wi-Fi development, Hewlett-Packard Co. introduced a new line of notebook computers that support both 802.11b and 802.11g Wi-Fi standards. This is the latest in a string of announcements of products that don't adhere to Intel Corp.'s new Centrino WLAN architecture, which is built around the 802.11b standard only.

Microsoft is offering a download of the new industry-standard Wi-Fi Protected Access Security (WPA) software as a replacement for older -- and more easily hacked -- Wired Equivalent Protocol (WEP) security software (see story). Using a built-in Extensible Authentication Protocol, which runs on Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service network servers, WPA can help enterprises determine the identity of users accessing corporate Wi-Fi networks.

WPA also replaces the static encryption keys in WEP with harder-to-crack dynamic keys through use of the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP), part of the draft IEEE 802.i standard expected to be approved in 2004. WPA includes a message integrity checksum called Michael that will help network administrators determine whether an unauthorized user has tried to intercept and decode TKIP keys.

Jawad Khaki, vice president of Windows Networking and Communications Technologies at Microsoft, said in a statement that "many IT managers are hesitant to enable wireless connectivity in their organizations due to security concerns." With WPA, "customers can have more confidence their data will be safer and more secure."

Sam Bhavnani, an analyst at ARS Inc. in La Jolla, Calif., agreed that security remains the No. 1 concern for business users in the booming Wi-Fi marketplace. Microsoft's decision to build WPA into XP will help alleviate those concerns because it will provide enhanced security that the end user "will not even have to think about."

Bill Carney, a member of the board of the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Mountain View, Calif.-based industry group that helped develop WPA, said the addition of the new security standard to Windows XP should "fuel wider adoption of [WPA] clients."

Microsoft's move on the operating systems side today dovetails with developments spurred by the Alliance on the hardware front. Carney said a number of manufacturers will introduce WPA hardware certified by the Alliance at the Networld+Interop conference in Las Vegas next month.

Carney, who is vice president for business development for wireless networking at Texas Instruments Inc. in Dallas, said older Wi-Fi access points and client hardware from most manufacturers could be upgraded to WPA with firmware. Beginning in August, Carney said, the Alliance will refuse to put its certification stamp on any new Wi-Fi hardware that doesn't offer WPA security.

While manufacturers line up behind the WPA standard, they continue to stray from the Centrino mobile wireless architecture backed by Intel. HP today introduced two Compaq Presario notebooks that feature mini-PCI cards that offer both 802.11b Wi-Fi connectivity at a raw data rate of 11M bit/sec. and 802.11g connectivity offering speeds up to 54M bit/sec. in the 2.4-GHz spectrum band.

HP has based the dual-mode architecture on chip sets from Broadcom Corp. in Irvine, Calif. Kevin Frost, HP's vice president of worldwide notebook marketing, said the company opted for the dual chip set because it can deliver "extremely fast wireless connections."

In January, Apple Computer Inc. announced that its two newest PowerBooks would offer wireless networking using 802.11g, which is backward-compatible with the slower 802.11b standard.

Michael Sargent, another ARS analyst, said the new HP notebooks indicate that a number of vendors on the PC side have decided that Intel's Centrino architecture is "not cutting-edge technology." Intel has said it will consider adding the 802.11g standard to Centrino later this year after the standard is ratified by the IEEE (see story).

Sargent said Dell Computer Corp. offers a notebook that meets the Intel Centrino architecture requirements -- and thus qualifies for Intel marketing support -- but that also offers buyers an upgrade to a dual-mode 802.11b/g notebook based on the Broadcom chip set at no additional cost.

The notebook market, Sargent said, "is moving away from Intel. Manufacturers are looking for alternatives."

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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