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Microsoft's WLAN play changes game

Microsoft's arrival in the wireless LAN management space with a product that simplifies Wi-Fi deployment and setup is evidence that not only is the software giant looking to expand its presence in the enterprise, but it's also looking to push smaller vendors out of the market.

With its September announcement of a wireless LAN management product, Microsoft has taken the first step toward using the space to further extend its presence in the enterprise.

Microsoft's Windows-based wireless LAN provisioning product, called Wireless Services Provisioning, enables Windows XP users to easily and securely log onto wireless hot spots and other wireless LANs. It also has a server component targeted at enterprises and hot spot providers that is designed to make roaming, billing and customer interaction easier. Both products will be available early next year.

"Our goal is to reduce the complexity of using a wireless LAN, so our users can be more productive," said Shai Guday, group program manager of wireless and mobility in Microsoft's Windows networking division.

Microsoft is aiming Wireless Services Provisioning at hot spot providers and users, many of whom are individual business travelers. But Guday said that there are many benefits that businesses can gain from the product as well.

For starters, it will simplify Wi-Fi deployment and setup on individual machines, Guday said. He also said that the product would make it easier for businesses to establish corporation-wide deals with hot spot providers, as well as to provision laptops to connect automatically with the correct hot spot vendor.

Like products from many other Wi-Fi management vendors, Wireless Services Provisioning will enable businesses to set up guest accounts and manage access levels for groups of employees.

Strategically, offering wireless LAN management products makes sense for Microsoft, said Allan Nogee, principal analyst with the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm, In-Stat/MDR.

"Microsoft offers fairly extensive wired network management tools; wireless is just the next piece of that," Nogee said.

With this product and others that may follow, it is likely that Microsoft will push some vendors out of the wireless LAN management space, said Craig Mathias, principal with the Ashland, Mass., research firm, Farpoint Group. Others will survive by providing enhanced services beyond what could become the Microsoft de facto standard.

However, Mathias thought it was a bit early for Microsoft to step into the market. "I was hoping they wouldn't get into the [Wi-Fi management] market right away," he said. "They are a tremendous market force, and once they do it, no one else will do it. It's too early to standardize."

Part of Microsoft's wireless LAN enthusiasm comes from its own experience, said Peter Pawlak, an analyst the Kirkland, Wash.-based research firm, Directions on Microsoft. The company has an extensive wireless network at its Redmond, Wash., campus, and employees have benefited from the freedom the network provides Microsoft employees, Pawlak said.

Wireless technology is not only important for Microsoft's business customers, but also for home users. Most houses are not wired for Ethernet, Pawlak noted, and wireless LANs can increase the usability of computing devices and applications throughout the home. It simultaneously boosts Microsoft's presence in the home as well.


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