Wi-Fi Where It Isn't Needed


I have always been a fan of Wi-Fi wireless networking, but lately I'm beginning to wonder if we might not have too much of a good thing. While Wi-Fi is wonderful on laptops, the technology is starting to turn up in smaller, simpler devices where it often seems like more trouble than it's worth. Eastman Kodak's (EK ) new $600 EasyShare-One camera is an example.

One of the first Wi-Fi-equipped cameras aimed at consumers, not professionals, the Kodak is an impressive 4-megapixel unit with an excellent lens, an oversize and very bright LCD display panel that doubles as the viewfinder, and 256 megabytes of internal storage. At the push of a button it can dispatch one or more pictures via Wi-Fi for online display at Kodak's EasyShare Gallery (formerly Ofoto). At the same time the camera can send friends or family an e-mail message with thumbnails of the pictures and a link to the Web images.

The EasyShare-One is a much better camera than those you find on cell phones. Trouble is, any camera-equipped cell phone makes it a lot easier to transmit pictures. While the exact procedure varies from phone to phone, it's almost always simple: select a picture, choose a phone number or e-mail address -- usually from the phone's address book -- and push a button to send.

WI-FI IS MUCH MORE COMPLICATED. First the camera must search for a network, then you choose one if more than one is available. If the network is password-protected, you enter a password using a tiny stylus to tap out letters on a minuscule on-screen keyboard. To send a photo, you then have to use that same stylus and keyboard to tap out an e-mail address since, at least to start with, your camera won't have an address book. You have to use the stylus again to tap out any message.

Once set up for your home network, this works reasonably well -- but there are some problems. The original security mechanism for Wi-Fi was badly flawed and has been superseded by a more advanced technique called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). PCs and Pocket PC (MSFT ) and Palm (PALM ) handhelds can handle WPA, but the extra complexity causes difficulties for devices such as cameras and wireless music players. Since everything on a Wi-Fi network must use the same security method, putting any of these products on your network forces you to drop back to a weaker form of Wi-Fi security. On my home network, for example, I had to choose between security and using a Roku SoundBridge wireless music player. Kodak acknowledges the problem and hopes to release a WPA upgrade soon.

Is the concept worth the trouble? At home it's simple to just dock the camera to a computer and use the keyboard and big display to mail or otherwise share pictures. So why bother with Wi-Fi? The puzzle grows more vexing if you leave home. Unlike a phone, the camera has to be set up for each network you want to use, and it's unusable at most Wi-Fi hot spots. Even if they don't require a credit card for billing, hot spots usually make you register with a Web browser, which the EasyShare lacks. Special software lets the camera use T-Mobile (T ) hot spots at Starbucks (SBUX ) and elsewhere, but you'll still be out of luck on other carriers' networks, including most hotel Wi-Fi.

I don't mean to pick on Kodak. At least it sent prints wirelessly to a $280 EasyShare printer using a direct Wi-Fi link. By contrast, I found the Wi-Fi setup on a Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 460 so difficult that I simply gave up.

I think Wi-Fi's ubiquity and low cost is tempting manufacturers to embed it where it doesn't belong. The EasyShare camera would do better with phone-type communications, though that's more expensive and complicated. Bluetooth short-range wireless is easy, but it's useful only for printing. What about transferring pictures the old-fashioned way, by docking the camera? Frankly, it's not that much trouble, so for now that's what I'll do.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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