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A Writer's View of the Wireless Dream - Part 2 - page 2

Into the WiFi Unknown

  • December 8, 2003
  • By Rob Reilly

Vendors are pushing their integrated wireless laptops, wireless PDAs are everywhere, and security experts are lamenting lack of standards for access. You can connect to your corporate servers while waiting for your plane at the airport, surf the web from your backyard, and read your email while sitting in a cafe. It's a pretty rosy picture, but the general public seems to view these capabilities a little cautiously. While some business leaders have embraced the technology in productive ways, the novelty is still very real, especially away from a corporate setting. That's not to say that the technology isn't useful; it's just that we are still in the early stages of productive wireless usage.

So, what is Linux WiFi good for?

For one thing, you can do anything on WiFi that you can do with a CAT5 cable, a PCMCIA Ethernet card, and a network. The obvious advantage is that you can pick up your laptop and move it around. Look Ma, no wires. Do you need to take your laptop down the hall to a meeting? Just pick it up and go to the conference room. Want to let the kids swim in the backyard pool while you finish up some maintenence on a remote server? Just close the lid and move out to the patio.

Another trend is that people are becoming more aware of is ubiquitous Ethernet access. Access points are showing up in homes, at airports, in hotels, in bookstores, and even pubs. Three or four years ago, there was virtually no broadband connectivity outside of large organizational environments or your dsl/cable equipped home. With WiFi popping up in all kinds of places, broadband access is slowly coming to the masses. As a matter of fact, 802.11b access has pretty much overshadowed public 10/100 wired access. It's kind of crazy that a network admin will bristle at your connecting to their wired network but they don't have much of a problem with you getting on their wireless access point.

As for other uses of WiFi on your Linux laptop, here are a few to get you started thinking:

  • Email - has to be the most important application currently used with WiFi. Businessmen and executives use the technology to check their messages at airports and cafes.
  • Web Surfing - the next biggest use. With the advent of browser based forms and gui's web surfing let's people perform work without specialized proprietary user interface programs and code. I've seen lot's of people Googleing for information while at Starbucks.
  • Connectivity To Your Home/Personal/Business Servers - You can access your home or work servers from wireless hotspots. I use SSH to get to my home based servers to retrieve information or check on things. You could also set up a VPN (virtual private network) from your wireless enabled Linux laptop to your corporate servers, to get to sensitive files and access private applications while away from the office. Connecting through a hotspot may occasionally present problems due to firewall and DNS issues. Nothing different that when wired connectivity is available for public use at say, a convention.
  • Shoutcasts, IRC, and VNC - I've been listening to the Melbourne Linux User Group (in Florida) live broadcast on Tuesday nights for nearly a year via my 802.11b connection to my wireless router and cable modem. The sound is great and I can run XChat to converse with online club members. At the same time, I can view web pages that are being discussed and see what the on-site meeting members are seeing (up on the projector screen) via the VNC session. All of this data travels effortlessly over my little 802.11b network connection on my laptop. Not only that, it works at my desk, when I'm fixing a snack in the kitchen or in the bathroom, while I give the kids a bath.
  • Internet Radio - Did you know that you can listen to Internet Radio while on WiFi. I've been to the local public library and listened to ShoutCast's SmoothJazz.com site. No skips or gaps and the sound quality was excellent.
  • Presentations - One area I've been experimenting with is using wireless Linux laptops, desktops, and projectors to do seminars. I recently demonstrated how well a Linux (Apache) server works through a wireless link. The server was at the back of the seminar room and I was up in front with my laptop and projector. No wires, no fuss. I'm also working on controlling a small wireless desktop Linux machine hooked up to a projector from my podium positioned Linux laptop. I've been working with the Rfb and X2X applications to run OpenOffice.org Impress remotely from the podium. I hate seeing those heavy projector cables, CAT5 cables, and duct tape stuck all over the floor in a conference venue. I've also worried about somebody tripping over the wires or accidently pulling my equipment off the table.
  • Portable Server - Perhaps you have a little point of sale or inventory control system that needs to be portable. Maybe your business is to do inventories for grocery stores with multiple data entry machines. Wireless might be used to quickly consolidate data onto a portable server for on-the-fly analysis and reporting.

As you can see, there are all kinds of applications for Linux WiFi, besides just looking at email and cruising the web while out in the park. I bet you've got some great ideas of your own and are wondering where you can go to connect.

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