Trying to enhance the appeal of Windows XP among wireless users, Microsoft has announced it is making a free upgrade available that supports the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) with a new security solution from the Wi-Fi Alliance.
The new software is meant to be a replacement for the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard that reportedly has more robust methods of data encryption and network authentication. This gives Windows XP users a better guarantee of security, Microsoft officials said.
"While most of the feedback has been good on Windows XP and how easy it is to use for Wi-Fi, some also say the security is not quite what it needs to be," Microsoft vice-president in charge of the company's networking and communications technologies for Windows platforms, Jawad Khaki said. "Many IT managers are hesitant to enable wireless connectivity in their organisations."
Khaki said that the way WPA improved data encryption was by resolving existing cryptographic "weaknesses" and introducing a new method to generate and then distribute encryption keys automatically.
Each bit of data can now be encrypted with a unique key thereby improving security. WPA also works to improve authentication by authenticating each and every user on a network while at the same time keeping out those same users from joining "rogue" networks.
WPA also represented another step toward 802.11i that was being developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) Standards Working Group for wireless local area networks, company officials said.
Microsoft has been working in concert with several vendors including Broadcom, Intel, Intersil and Linksys Group to make sure that users of Windows XP can use WPA uniformly and then upgrade to 802.11i when it becomes available.
"Protecting home and business Wi-Fi wireless networks from outside attackers must be one of our highest priorities," director of broadband services at Linksys, Matt McRae, said. "Security is key to adding piece of mind and to driving the adoption of wireless networking," he said.
Gartner Dataquest in a recent report forecast that the penetration rate of wireless local area networks into the professional mobile PC installed base would grow from 9 per cent in 2000 to just under 50 per cent by the end of this year, and to 90 per cent in 2007.
Khaki said a solid security standard would do for wireless computing what TCP/IP built into Windows 95 did for the Internet.
"I feel that having that (TCP/IP) built into Windows 95 was a key catalyst for Internet's growth. We feel a standards based wireless implementation that secures the data of our users is a major catalyst to the deployment of wireless nets in both the home and enterprise," Khaki said.
The new upgrade, which was "only a few hundred kilobytes", he said, could be downloaded free of charge by both home and corporate users at www.microsoft.com/downloads.
The new upgrade will be standard in the next version of Windows XP or the operating system's next service pack.