Intel, MS See Soft Wi-Fi Future

By Ed Sutherland

May 01, 2002

Microsoft and Intel are both at work trying to turn the typical Windows PC into an 802.11 access point... but neither wants to admit it.

While neither will confirm a product exists, both Microsoft and Intel are hard at work on ways to turn your PC into an inexpensive Wi-Fi access point.

Microsoft was expected to announce its own plan, dubbed Soft Wi-Fi, at the recent Seattle Windows Engineering Conference. Although little was revealed about the initiative, Microsoft did confirm Soft Wi-Fi would be part of a future version of Windows.

"Soft Wi-Fi is a new driver model" allowing processing currently done by the 25 MHz chip used by hardware-based access points to be performed within Windows, according to a spokesperson from Microsoft's press relations service.

Wi-Fi Exposure
Rather than seeing just Ethernet header information, such as destination and source addresses, Soft Wi-Fi exposes the raw Wi-Fi data stream to Windows, says the company representative.

"This allows a Windows PC to act as an access point," according to Microsoft.

By off-loading some of the 802.11 processing from the AP to Windows, Microsoft sees less expensive hardware for consumers.

Wi-Fi, the MS Way
By Windows processing Wi-Fi traffic rather than differing access point hardware firms, the user experience would be more consistent, according to Microsoft.

Though refusing to name hardware companies it is working with, 802.11 chipset maker Intersil said Apr. 23 they have been working closely with Microsoft ensuring their new chip combining 802.11 and Bluetooth support works with the Soft Wi-Fi concept.

"We have actively been in discussions with all the major Wi-Fi vendors and anticipate hardware will be available when the software is completed," said Microsoft's representative.

Intel's AP
In previously published reports, Intel has called its plan to open up the 802.11 market "Soft AP." While the chip maker believes today's PCs can handle the workload of a hardware access point, it's not so sure Wi-Fi won't slow to a crawl under Windows. To make up for Windows' lack of real-time processing, Intel is developing a way to split an access point between Windows and a chip for 802.11 cards to handle real-time events. Although experiments with Soft AP have been underway for a year, Intel says it has no plans to release a product.

Both Intel and Microsoft are targeting consumers, rather than businesses. Intel has stated its Soft AP could cut in half the cost of consumer APs to just $100. A company AP is usually more expensive and includes central management features.

Intel said Soft AP will be restricted to the access point and not the 802.11 PC card for laptops. Emulating a network card is impractical due to the intensive Digital Signal Processing work required. A software 802.11 card would drain laptop batteries and slash PC performance.

Silicon Wi-Fi
Intel's interest in 802.11 doesn't stop with Soft AP. Intel recently unveiled its Banias chip with embedded Wi-Fi support and optimized for laptops and notebook computers. The San Mateo, Calif.-based semiconductor company could release chips supporting both 802.11b and 802.11a in May.

For analysts such as In-Stat/MDR's Allen Nogee, talk of emulating Wi-Fi access points recalls U.S. Robotic's Winmodem. Winmodems are modems that rely on the PC's CPU to process the data flow.

Whenever Soft Wi-Fi or Soft AP products reach the 802.11 market, they likely would not replace Internet router/gateways from Linksys, 2Wire or Intel.

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