Since the release of Windows 95 in August 1995, each desktop version of Windows has evolved to include ever more powerful, yet easy-to-use, networking capabilities. This tradition continues in Windows XP, which will make wireless networking easier than ever, and home networking safer than ever. In this showcase, I'll be taking a look at the networking advances in Windows XP.

Simplified Wireless Networking
For wireless technologies, Microsoft is primarily focusing on the 802.11 standard, which the company sees as the high grow technology in this market. But 802.11 under previous versions of Windows is a nightmare, with poor user interfaces, security issues, and high failure rates. "We tried to solve these problems in Windows XP," says Tim Moore, the Group Product Manager for Networking at Microsoft. "Enterprises are deploying 802.11 or planning on it, and of course you see it in airports and other public spaces, as seen by the recent Starbucks deal." (Microsoft recently signed a deal with the popular coffee chain to supply wireless Internet access to its retail stores). "Prices have gone down for the home as well, but for this release, the focus was business users, not home users," Moore added.

Windows XP simplifies wireless networking by providing "zero configuration" for 802.11 devices. You plug in the card and Windows XP automatically scans for an available network. If you switch networks, say by walking from one coverage area to another, the device will be reconfigured on the fly, automatically. "There's no rebooting, even when switching networks," Moore told me. "The user doesn't have to do anything." This feature will not be enabled in the Beta 2 release of Windows XP, but Moore says it will be fully functional soon thereafter. <% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %>

One of the primary complaints about 802.11 concerns security: Microsoft solves this by implementing 802.11X, which supports user and machine authentication using Radius over existing 802.11 networks. And 802.11X security can be integrated directly into Active Directory, giving users a single logon capability. To the user, network access is automatic and instant, all without any need to manually configure anything.

Windows XP also makes roaming wireless access easier. The alternative IP configuration that's available in Windows XP gives wireless connections the ability to switch between static IP and DHCP-based configurations on the fly, using DHCP auto-renew. And the connection will automatically search for the fastest wireless network on which that user has access. This is true with multiple network configurations as well: If you plug your laptop into a wired 100 Mbs Ethernet network, that connection will be automatically used instead of the wireless one.

Home Networking
For home users, Windows XP offers a more secure and easy-to-use networking solution that any previous version of Windows. Microsoft added Internet Connection Sharing in Windows 98, and then the Home Networking Wizard (HNW) in Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me). Both of these features have been substantially improved for Windows XP, and new features, such as a software firewall, have been added.

"28 percent of all U.S. homes have multiple PCs," says Dennis Morgan, a Program Manager in Microsoft's Networking group. "and 27 percent of those are networked." Other signs that home networking is becoming an increasingly important technology: 4 percent of Internet homes have broadband (cable modem, or sometimes, DSL) Internet connections, while 15 percent of networked homes have broadband. With new networking technologies like HomePNA and wireless, the need to understand Ethernet-based routing is dwindling, along with the complexity. Microsoft feels that this is another networking market that's waiting to explode. And users are going to want to use various solutions--Ethernet, wireless, and phone-line-based networks--together seamlessly.

"Users want to share an Internet connection, share files, and share printers," Morgan said. "In Windows XP, we can detect whether Internet Connection Sharing is on a machine upstream and configure it automatically with Universal Plug and Play." Windows XP makes it easier than ever to set up and manage home networks, protect PCs from outside intruders, and share network resources, Morgan says.

To configure networking, Microsoft offers an updated Home Networking Wizard. This configures TCP/IP settings, workgroup membership, and Internet Explorer settings for every system on the network, all at once. You can also use this wizard to share printers, and create a shared document folder that is accessible to all users from any machine on the network.

Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) provides access to all network services, such as NAT (Network Address Translation), DHCP (Dynamic Host Control Protocol) and DSN (Domain Name System); in other words, it automatically enables all downstream systems to access the Internet, using your internal home network. What's nice about this feature is that the other systems on the network (that is, the ones that are not directly connected to the Internet) require absolutely no configuration at all: If the network and individual network interface cards are installed correctly, the whole setup will just work. Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), first introduced in Windows Me, enables downstream machines to automatically discover ICS hosts and their connection states. And you can use UPnP clients to manage ICS boxes.

One welcome new feature in Windows XP is the integrated Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), which provides unobtrusive protection against hackers. ICF is particularly important for broadband users whose machines are constantly connected to the Internet. It is always on, and automatically configured.