What You Can Learn About Your Products From A Wireless Network

Published as Wireless Network Lessons
in Business & Economic Review April 2001. (Expanded for this site.)

Wouldn't it be nice if you could just walk into a room with a laptop computer and have it connected to other computers and the networks at blazing speed, without wires? Any computer whiz can do it, but can you or I? The answer provides a lesson that might improve the products and services that you supply.

The Wireless Promise - Did It Deliver?

Why would you want a wireless network? With all your PCs connected in your small business you can share documents, software, or a high speed Internet connection like DSL or a cable modem among all your users. You can download those big files in minutes instead of hours. All stuff that big companies do but small businesses often can't.

The attraction to wireless is that you can plug a card and disk into each computer and the network sets itself up. With no wires, you can move your laptop computer around the office and just log onto the Internet from where you are. It can run at speeds that are faster than DSL or cable modems. If you work from home, you could work from bed or kitchen and still surf the net at high speed.

If you don't have an IT department, you might have the desire to install all this yourself. Technology is supposed to be getting easier to install and run, so we tried it. We learned a great deal.

The most important lesson is that most managers and owners probably don't have enough time for this. No matter how much you might want to save a few dollars, making it easy for your computers to talk to each other and the net will eat up far more hours than you want. If you have a business to run, you can either invest your time into marketing, people, growth, or configuring computers. Configuring computers comes last.

The second lesson is that you still need an IT department to do these things. We installed two of the new wireless office networks to avoid running cable. These are inexpensive (plan on $500 to $1000 to connect four or five computers) and the promise is that anyone can install them. The products with the best reviews in late 2000 were Lucent (the Orinoco product line) and Proxim (the Symphony line). These work differently, we chose Orinoco first because it promises to work with corporate wireless systems. That could be an advantage if you work with a larger company - it means that you could show up at their office and be on the network within seconds.

If you install these products, the first thing that you will discover is that you may need an expert to tell you what you need. We called four Orinoco distributors, and none could figure out how to configure our network and tell us what to buy. In general, the tech support from the resellers caused problems. One Proxim support person told us "Whoever you bought this from, you don't want to call them" for help. Proxim's help line is easily found. Lucent's help number is well hidden. (See the addendum for details.) Both were very helpful when we called.

The Orinoco products, highly touted for ease of use, weren't. If your expertise is running a business, you probably do not know enough to install this product. The "wizards" just do not function for nontechnical folks. Worse, despite the fact that we told the tech support team about our choice of America Online (a common choice among small businesses) they did not warn us that Orinoco is incompatible with AOL DSL. The installation never worked.

The Symphony products installed much more smoothly, but not smoothly enough. The instructions are admirable. The manual shows each screen that might to confuse a manager or owner. The system has enough smarts to do some of its own technical work. However, even with that the installation failed. After some trial and error we achieved connection, but not by using the documentation.

In both installations, one older computer simply did not work. If you own a computer that is more than two years old, you may need to forget about connecting it.1

The Lesson for Your Network:

The average business owner or manager should not have to be a technologist to install modern small office computer networks. Just because we are good at our business does not mean that we are or should be good at technology. As a focused manager, you should be able to choose to not invest time in learning configuration tools.

The most important lesson is that none of this difficulty comes from lack of thinking about the problem by the supplier. We deal with a lot of these providers. They are not trying to make the average user feel dumb. They are producing what they believe are easy-to-use products. They do not realize that what is easy to them is mind numbing to the average business owner. The effect is that good products don't sell well. The market is stifled because only technically adept people can participate.

The Lessons for Your Business:

What are the lessons for your business? Ask yourself a question - are your own products and services any easier to use than Lucent's? How do you know? Just because you understand the products does not mean that the average business owner does. Don't assume that your business is easy for the user. Test it carefully. It isn't reasonable to assume that he or she will take an hour to figure it out. You could be losing references.

Take a look at the notes in the addendum, and you will see phrasing and concepts that seem very simple to the company that makes the products. It is very easy to confuse ease for yourself with ease for your customers. If you supply products or services, you owe it to yourself to ensure that you do not fall into the same trap that these technology companies are in. Don't assume that any of your customers know enough to use the product.

And if you do decide to buy a wireless network, either Lucent's Orinoco or Proxim's symphony may or may not work. The latter is much easier to install. Even so, get someone else to do it for you. You'll be glad that you did.

Addendum: Making Wireless Work in Your Business

Despite all of the difficulty, wireless can work in your home or office. You just need to know three things. First, do not ask your vendor for help, call the manufacturer's help line right away. Second, make sure that you explain what kind of DSL or dial up link you are using. This makes more difference than it should. Third, you should hire someone to do this for you.

After this article was written, the largest Internet network company (Cisco Systems) released a new version of their product that is designed for this purpose. It is called the Aironet 350 series. We will be testing it in April, 2001.

For technical support for any of these products, try the following:

Lucent Orinoco:
1-800-WaveLAN
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Proxim:
Tech support - 800-411-8106

Cisco
1 800 553 6387

From there, point (in this order) to Service & Support, Technical Assistance Center (TAC), Wireless LAN, and Cisco Aironet 350.

Some of the interesting attitudes that each company takes can be seen from how they represent themselves. For instance, the Lucent/Orinoco site notes the following "easy" explanation:

From Lucent Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) - "The RG-1000 can easily be connected to an ISDN or DSL router via its Ethernet port. Using a HUB between the RG and the ISDN or DSL box allows for wired clients to be serviced from the RG-1000. Caution has to be taken to avoid conflicts if the ISDN or DSL router also supports NAT and DHCP. Only one DHCP server should be active on the Ethernet segment between RG and ISDN or DSL box, if both have a NAT router active, Local IP ranges of these routers should differ."

At this writing, Proxim does not have full software for Windows 2000 or Windows ME. If you use a computer with either, you will need extensive support from their technical team. However, Proxim does offer a USB connected client adapter. That allows you to connect your wireless network to the PC without opening it up, which is a nice feature for those of us who would prefer to never open a PC!

Cisco assumes that you are a registered user, which means that you will have to get an ID from them as a direct customer or from the company that sells you the wireless network. You can buy from Cisco directly by becoming a registered user. Cisco further assumes that you have a pretty good knowledge of Windows and how to install products.

Copr 2001 by the Meyer Group, all rights reserved