It Should Be ALL About The WLAN Client These Days- But OS Makers Evidently Don’t See It That Way

Did ya hear? Evidently wireless has caught on, and lots of people actually want to use those pricey client devices they are buying. But we’re facing a problem. To use those devices the way we want, they actually have to work faithfully and reliably, at home and at work.

Sounds simple, yes? I mean, the modern paradigm of wirelessly connected client devices goes back to the original 802.11 standard turned loose in 1997. Seventeen years and five generations of WLAN technology later, you’d think that OS (and device) makers would realize a simple premise: IF A WLAN CLIENT DEVICE CAN’T JOIN THE NETWORK, IT MAY AS WELL BE IN AIRPLANE MODE. Yet there are lots of signals being sent by the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Google, and others that they either don’t get it, or don’t much give a rip once you’ve bought your device. Harsh words, sure- but when you run a network the size of a small city, you see the impact on clients (there are actually people behind those devices) when things get hosed* compliments of the OS/device maker.

And things do get hosed. Unfortunately, it’s frequently for devices that need to connect to Enterprise Wi-Fi.

This week, immediately following Windows updates, I had a couple of my own Windows 7 and 8 laptops develop WLAN connectivity issues. Then the phone calls and Lync messages came- a number of Microsoft Surface tablets could no longer connect to the same Enterprise-secure WLAN that they could just yesterday (this ended up being related to Wi-Fi Direct settings on the WLAN that hadn’t changed in a year). Quick WLAN driver updates (and in one case a chipset driver update) got my devices back in the pink, but we’re still trying to figure out what’s up with the Surface Tablets. (Stay with me, the point isn’t that every now and then you have to do driver updates.)

Then there’s Apple, Through the years, I’ve seen all sorts of major and minor updates to iOS and OS X versions wreak havoc on Apple Enterprise clients. (If I’m seeing issues, usually most of Higher Ed is too, regardless of what WLAN hardware we all run.) Usually my group spends a bunch of time, figures out some work around, then waits for the inevitable Apple update that vaguely “improves Airport performance” without giving any real details. But this one of late is pretty refreshing from Apple- they actually provide some gory details on how their elite, too-expensive-to-fail devices actually have problems with Enterprise WLANs, too.

And now to the point. Wi-Fi has become far too important for devices and OS updates to not get more QA and testing before they are unleashed on people who rely on them. We also have a bizarre trend going on where both Apple and Microsoft are making it HARDER to configure client devices:

  • Microsoft thinks that after years of users being able to see their wireless settings options through the graphical side of the OS, now  end users should be doing command line configuration. WTF? Really? How is this good on any level? Your average user should be on the hook for this?
  • Speaking of Microsoft- this sort of ineptitude is just a running theme for the Surface
  • Since OS X 10.7, Apple has taken the ability for users to manually configure an 802.1x profile away from those who drop that fat coin on their laptops. “Go see your network admin.” Again, why? I bought the thing- gimme all of MY settings.
  • Apple’s general legacy of sucky Wi-Fi runs deep- ask any long-serving WLAN admin:Image

I’m both disheartened and confounded by the general state of WLAN client devices these days, and I fear we’re fundamentally heading in the wrong direction. WLANs are getting ever more sophisticated, while the client market continues to fragment (those that support Enterprise security/those that don’t, those with modern drivers/those stuck in legacy data rates, etc). This alone is maddening,with no relief in sight.

There’s simply no excuse for Microsoft and Apple to add to the client suck factor with patches that break Enterprise WLAN or create problems for Wi-Fi in general. There are only so many enterprise wireless makers, so many EAP types, and so many RADIUS servers out there, and it’s pretty obvious that the Big OS folks are not testing what they push out- as evidenced by so, so many environments impacted by the same issues. (Microsoft would do very well to get the message to users after OS patches “Your OS is up to date, but this doesn’t include system drivers. Please check for updates to your WLAN adapter and chipset drivers or your network connectivity may be impacted” with guidance provided on how to do that.)

I don’t want my users involuntarily made part of the OS makers’ “crowd-sourced quality assurance” studies for crappy code. You can’t tell us that Apple and Microsoft can’t piece together legitimate Eneterprise WLAN test environments and do a better job with Wi-Fi stability on their devices and operating systems. The pockets are certainly deep enough, and users deserve better by now, WLAN admins deserve better, and the greater wireless community deserves better.

Users realize how important Wi-Fi is in a world gone mobile. It’s time for the likes of Microsoft and Apple to give the Wi-Fi part of their client codes top priority, as right now Wi-Fi reliability too often seems like an afterthought.

It should be up to us to put our devices into Airplane Mode when we choose to- we shouldn’t end up with it forced on us when a patch kills our Wi-Fi capabilities.

*hosed: “Hardware, Or Software Error Detected”
       From “Parson’s Lexicon For Sophisticated WLAN Types, Vol I”

3 thoughts on “It Should Be ALL About The WLAN Client These Days- But OS Makers Evidently Don’t See It That Way

  1. Frank

    Or the fact that Windows mobile is completely missing any 1x authentication.

    Or the fact that Microsoft is still shipping ancient Intel wifi drivers that cause many 2 stream cards to crash and burn when connecting to 3 stream APs.

    Or the fact that one of the top troubleshooting steps for OSX is to disable IPv6 on wireless.

    Sadly, much of the industry seems to be stuck focusing on the in-basement experience, much to the detriment of any enterprise or other large scale networks. This leave those of us running large networks stuck fighting the ever-annoying “but it works at home!” complaint. Apple laptops are tested against Apple Airport stations, while that Dell laptop actually gets tested against both Linksys *and* Netgear!

    And don’t even get me started on manufacturers that ship devices that broadcast networks on channels other than 1/6/11 (I’m looking at you, Verizon Mifi and HP printers…)

  2. dbuckey

    Agreed, Manufacturers should not depend on client owners or their WLAN administrators to upgrade, upload, search for drivers or perform command line configuration to connect to the internet.

    First hand experience like yours should be brought to the attention of Apple, Google, Microsoft etc. (I know, intention of blog) Mind if I share it?

    Lastly, thanks for the update on the Windows surface tablets. I was in the market to purchase a new Windows machine. But after learning about their connectivity issue(s), I’m going to cripple “Big M”, and hit ’em right in the pocket, where it “hurts”!



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