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January 21, 2002 | gear

Xircom Wireless LAN Module
for Palm m500 Handhelds

reviewed by Cory Doctorow


Four or five years ago, I had a sea-change in my computing experience. One day, I realized that I had started to view any computer not connected to the Internet as just a fancy game-console-cum-jumped-up-typewriter. Working on an airplane or from a café just felt wrong.

This feeling deepened and magnified a thousandfold the day I got my first iBook and Airport Base Station. If you've used wireless networking on a laptop, you know what I'm talking about -- snatching the Internet out of the very air is an experience you won't go back from willingly (another one is TiVo -- I've stopped watching TV in hotel rooms because I can't choose among thirty hours of custom-recorded programming and skip commercials). Just as TiVo ruined me for dumb TV, 802.11 ruined me for wired networking or no networking at all.

And it keeps on getting better. 802.11 isn't just a technology, it's a movement, an ad-hoc world of open base-stations around the world. Just haul out your 802.11-equipped device and start hunting about for a network. If you're in a major city, chances are you'll find one before you go a block. Forget 3G and Blackberry and all those other pale imitations of connectivity: community wireless is the real shit: fast, unmetered, insecure and out of control.

I've spent the past couple weeks wandering around with a Palm m500 PDA and a Xircom Wireless LAN Module. The latter is a kind of sled that snaps over the back of the PDA, adding a half-inch or so to the thickness of the device. It's very cleverly engineered to ride on the device without obscuring the IR port or requiring a new cover, and even with the added thickness, it still rides comfortably in your pocket. There's an external power jack, and you can charge your PDA and the module with one plug.


Xircom w/o PalmXircom sells a version of this device for the Handspring Visor, which protrudes an inch or so from the top of the handheld, making it nearly impossible to carry around, since there aren't any decent "work-through" cases that can accomodate the bulge, which means that you've got to walk around with your Visor's naked screen exposed to knocks and scratches.

The Handspring version has some serious advantages over the Palm version, though: because of Handspring's unique Springboard expansion technology, it's possible to preload the module's memory with a browser and email client. The user-experience in incredible: plug the module in, enter the ID of your local network and hey-presto, you're online, with a full-featured browser (Handspring's most excellent "Blazer" software) and a nice little mailer. The mean time between removing the shrinkwrap and a total wireless orgasm is all of 45 seconds.

But the Palm m500's architecture makes this trick impossible. The module does load its own drivers, but you still have to synch your PDA to install Internet utilities before it can do anything interesting. The m500 does have an expansion slot that can accomodate an external flash-card, and Xircom would do very well to bundle a small card with the device, pre-loaded with a browser, mailer, and ssh client.


Both devices have a massive, critical failing: They are incapable of automatically detecting nearby networks and automatically connecting to them. In the Mac world, the Airport popup menu shows nearby networks and lets you choose one to connect to; in the Windows world, specifying "ANY" as your network ID connects you to the strongest nearby signal automatically. But there's no such equivalent for the Xircom device.

I spoke with Xircom about this, and they told me that there's an proposed standard for automatically negotiating a connection to nearby networks, and until that emerges, Xircom doesn't want to try to roll their own solution.

This is, of course, a terrible decision. Needing to know the name of the network you wish to connect to means that you can't roam with your device, can't pop onto a friend's network without hassling over spelling and capitalization of their network name, and so on.

It's as though Xircom has decided that 802.11 users exist only in the enterprise, where sysadmins are available to configure all devices with network names and passwords. Of course, this is hardly the case. Enterprises are dragging their feet on 802.11, because of much-publicized security holes in WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy, the standard means of securing an 802.11 network) and the inherent conservatism of the suits who make the technology decisions.


And where wireless has penetrated the enterprise, it's done so because users have demanded it, demanded laptops equipped with wireless cards so that they can login to networks at home, on the street, and at cafés (MobileStar has a very expensive wireless network with access-points in Starbucks in several major US cities, though the Xircom modules can't negotiate sign on with them due to incompatibilities with their proxy). Just as users adopted PDAs, laptops, and cellphones in the enterprise because these devices had utility outside of the workplace, 802.11 is being driven by personal, not corporate use. When a pager was a device that doctors and key personnel used to get messages from an answering service, they were a burden, an imposition on your private life. As soon as these devices started to accept messages from anyone, they became a perk. Ignoring this fact has severely limited the utility of the Xircom modules.

But that's software. Surely, Xircom will see the error of their ways (or adopt this soi-distant standard) and produce an update with automatic network detection and connection.


A pocket-sized network device is fantastically useful. A small device with easy text-entry, a real browser and mailer, and a sharp screen that's connected to the Internet without any wires changes everything.

Every factoid is at your fingertips. Maps, mail, and messaging, always there. Google becomes your auxillary brain.

The community wireless movement is rapidly saturating the airwaves with free Internet. Home access points are dropping to just about a hundred bucks, and the cards are going for as little as $75. Once the network detection software exists for these devices and their successors, we'll be living in a trekkian utopia of communicators connected to everyone and everything.

I can't wait.


Cory Doctorow's first novel, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" will be published by Tor Books in Fall 2002. He won the Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer at the 2000 Hugo Awards. He co-edits the weblog Boing Boing, and co-founded the software company OpenCola. His most recent book is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction (co-written with Karl Schroeder). Mindjack recently published an excerpt from his new novel, Eastern Standard Tribe. He and Bruce Sterling will deliver a keynote address on the Death of Scarcity at this year's SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, TX.



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