1.2 Connecting Without Wires

There are many situations where wireless makes sense. Actually, there are only a few situations where it doesn't (when you need an extremely high-bandwidth connection, for instance), but here are a few examples of places where using wireless is clearly superior to being wired.

1.2.1 At Home

A home generally starts off with one computer, with the expectation that everyone will be able to share it. Then the kids want their own computer. Then someone needs a laptop. Eventually you end up like us, with 12 computers (distributed among 3 people) that all need Internet connectivity. Even if you're not in our over-the-top scenario, you still might not want to string wires everywhere, or pay for the cost of having a professional come in and run them through the walls and floors. Believe us: we've had two houses completely wired for Ethernet, and it was painfully expensive. About two months after we bought the second house, Apple introduced AirPort. Had we known that wireless networking was going to be available, it would have saved us a bunch of money. On the other hand, we do have those convenient Ethernet jacks in the kitchen and the bedroom.

We use the jack in the living room to hook a wireless access point up to our wired Ethernet network, which is connected to the Internet by our cable modem. This configuration allows us to sit on the front porch with a cool drink, enjoy the view, and surf the Net, picking up our email and convincing our editors that we're working. Seriously, the point here isn't our decadent geek lifestyle, but rather that wireless connectivity allows us more flexibility in our work life, without that leash we once required for our connection to the rest of the world. In most cases, you'll find that wireless is simply the most cost-effective and least obtrusive way to connect all of your computers.

1.2.2 In the Office

While a family might be surprised to realize how many computers they've come to own, a business usually has at least one computer per person. And if you're in charge of hooking up that company's computers and your business is expanding or moving, finding new places to arrange for connectivity can be a pain. After you've re-run more wiring (again), bought more hubs (again), and rearranged the spaghetti mess of cables for the nth time, going wireless looks like a great idea.

At a minimum, wireless is the best bet for certain groups of office users:

  • Telecommuters

  • Visitors who need Internet connectivity

  • Temporary workers (when your staffing needs fluctuate)

  • Laptop users

  • Frequent travelers

Wireless connections in the office bring their own set of challenges for the person in charge of the network, not the least of which is security. Chapter 5 deals with wireless security in depth.

1.2.3 On the Road

While you may be able to arrange to have wires brought into your home or office, it's unlikely that you'll be able to bring connectivity everywhere you travel, such as conferences, hotel rooms, or coffeehouses. Thankfully, many of these places now have wireless connectivity, whether it's public and free, private and fee-based, or private but insecure.

We'll cover security and open networks in Chapter 4, but here are some travel situations we've run into that demonstrate the capabilities of wireless while on the road:

  • One of us stayed with friends in Manhattan during the New York Macworld Expo in July 2002. These friends, unfortunately, made do with a dialup Internet connection. Using a PowerBook and MacStumbler (more about the latter in Chapter 4), Dori was able to show our friends just how easy it was to find open networks in a major city?without ever leaving her friend's apartment (Figure 1-1).

    Figure 1-1. Networks found within range of a single, moderately-sized Manhattan co-op

    Keep in mind that this was with a stock Titanium PowerBook and its notoriously terrible wireless reception range. It's quite likely that either an iBook or an Aluminum PowerBook would have found considerably more wireless networks. If you have a TiBook, Chapter 2 offers some ways to improve your reception.

  • In our pre-wireless days on the road together, we'd squabble over who got to use the hotel's high-speed network connection first, and for how long. Now, we simply hook up one laptop to the hotel's connection, activate Internet Sharing on that computer, and voilà! Both laptops are online.

  • The last holiday season was a wireless extravaganza. For Thanksgiving, we stayed with one of our parents; since Mom didn't have broadband, and we needed to send in work, we lurked at a local Starbucks and used their Wi-Fi connection. Over Christmas, we visited a relative with broadband, but no wireless. We brought along a wireless router, and kept in touch with friends until the New Year.

  • Sometimes we're not in range of a Wi-Fi network, but we still need to send an important piece of email from our laptops. No problem: we use Bluetooth to create a wireless connection between our PowerBook and our cell phone, then use the cell phone as a modem to hook up to the Internet. Chapter 7 covers how you can use cell phones for Internet access.