You've got wireless networking in your home, and you're enjoying surfing from the couch with your AirPort-enabled Mac, but you're starting to look a little wan and feel a little lonely. It's time to search for coffee shops and other public places with Wi-Fi service (which is just wireless networking -- the same as AirPort). Then you can cut the invisible cords that are keeping you at home, get some sunshine, and rejoin the real world. We'll help you connect wirelessly to the Web from wherever you roam.
A Wi-Fi Primer
Every week, there are more locations that let you connect wirelessly to the Internet. They're called hotspots, and with the right equipment, just about anyone can create one. In fact, these days it seems as though nearly everyone is offering hotspots. You can find them in hotels, cafés, bookstores, airports, libraries, and even throughout entire neighborhoods. Some places charge you for the privilege of connecting, but there are plenty of free hotspots out there, too.
Paying the Toll
In most major U.S. cities, it's easy to find places willing to take your money to let you connect (see "AirPort Away from Home," in "The Way to Wireless," March 2003). Visit Wireless ISP (WISP) sites such as T-Mobile HotSpot (www.t-mobile.com/hotspot) or Surf and Sip (www.surfandsip.com) to find places where you can access their services. Sites such as Wi-FiHotSpotList.com (www.wi-fihotspotlist.com), WiFinder (www.wifinder.com), JiWire (www.jiwire .com), and Wi-Fi Zone (www.wi-fizone.org) offer directories of hotspots. Their information can be incomplete, and you'll probably have to check multiple sites to find all the available hotspots.
Connecting to such networks is pretty easy (see "Making the Connection"). While some require that you download special software, others, such as T-Mobile, open a special Web page, called a captive portal, which is accessible only within the range of the hotspot. When you fire up your Web browser, this page prompts you to log in. (Starbucks T-Mobile hotspots require that you set up your browser to load a Web page when opening a new window.)
The Kindness of Strangers
Of course, paying $8 per day to connect to a wireless network doesn't make sense when an equally nice café down the street offers free access. Many businesses, community and government organizations, and individuals see giving away Internet access as an effective way to bring people to an area or a store. And in many areas, officials and community leaders see the potential of Wi-Fi to give Internet access to people who might not otherwise have it.
How you join such networks varies. With some, you just choose from your list of available networks, and you're on. Others may require that you connect via a captive portal. Finding these free hotspots is another story. You may have read about warchalking (www .warchalking.org) -- drawing chalk symbols on the sidewalk to indicate wireless access points -- but this practice never really lived up to its hype. You're better off just opening your laptop wherever you are and checking for a connection (this is called warwalking or, when done from a car, wardriving). To do this, you can use MacStumbler (www.macstumbler.com), a free program that finds wireless access points you're near and tells you the signal strength, or the $30 Kensington WiFi Finder (www.kensington.com), a keychain-size gadget that tells you when you're in range of a hotspot.
Many Web sites gather information about Wi-Fi networks in various communities. Some of the sites we've already mentioned include a smattering of listings. And sites such as NoCat.net (http://nocat.net), NodeDB.com (www.nodedb.com), and WiFiMaps (www.wifimaps.com) concentrate on helping you find free community access points.
Not every hotspot is the creation of a big telecommunications company or a café owner hoping to get some steady clients. Sometimes, individuals create hotspots by accident. For example, if you set up a home wireless network via an access point such as Apple's AirPort Extreme Base Station and don't turn on any security features, you have essentially opened a new ISP for any of your neighbors within range of the access point. And many people intentionally create hotspots, to share their Internet access with a neighbor.
Be sure that you haven't disabled the other security features on your Mac, such as file sharing (in the Sharing preference pane). If anyone at home can access your hard drive without a password, so can anyone connected to your network. You should also follow these normal security procedures when connecting to others' Wi-Fi networks, and consider turning on the built-in firewall (also in the Sharing preference pane) in Jaguar or Panther.
As you help yourself to your neighbor's open wireless connection, you may ask yourself whether your actions are moral -- or even legal. Should you expect a SWAT team to break down your door? The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF; www.eff.org), a technology-rights advocacy organization, says that while this isn't an area of settled law, you're probably OK.
"The way the Internet works, there's no permission mechanism," says EFF outreach coordinator Cory Doctorow. "The way I find out if I'm allowed to connect to your access point is by trying to connect to your access point."
Others take a dimmer view of the practice. Tim Pozar, an industry pioneer and founder of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group (www.bawug.org), believes that the practice hurts people who pay for the access, expect a certain amount of bandwidth, and inadvertently leave the connection open. It also hurts the ISPs, he argues, as they base their rates on average home use. "It blows some of the economics of residential broadband services," he says.
As far as sharing your Internet connection goes, check your ISP's fine print. Many expressly forbid it (the EFF is building a list of those that allow it, at www.eff.org/Infra/Wireless_cellular_radio/wireless_
friendly_isp_list.html). But watch for warnings that opening a connection means opening yourself to litigation -- if, for example, someone uses your network to illegally download the entire Air Supply catalog in MP3 format. Current law exempts ISPs from liability for such acts. So does your AirPort network make you an ISP? Again, it's not an area of settled law. "An ISP is someone who provides Internet service," says Doctorow. "If that isn't someone who provides an open connection, I don't know what is."
The number of hotspots -- free and paid -- increases by the week. So if the lack of access in your neighborhood is making you live a hermit's life, don't lose hope -- and don't throw away your street clothes just yet. The wireless revolution has just begun.
Making the Connection
Before you can access wireless hotspots, you'll need to do a couple of things. In OS X's Network preference pane, configure your computer to get an IP address via DHCP (select Using DHCP from the Configure pop-up menu under the TCP/IP tab).
Select your network from the menu represented by the AirPort status icon in your menu bar (if the icon isn't visible, open the Network preference pane, choose AirPort from the Show menu, click on the AirPort tab, and select Show AirPort Status In Menu Bar). Then try launching a Web browser and connecting to a Web site. If you wind up on a captive portal page, it will tell you how to connect. And if you connect directly to the site, you're using a free hotspot.
Pocket PC Without Shame
If you're the proud owner of a Pocket PC–based handheld, never fear: it can talk to your Mac, despite its Windows roots. Information Appliance Associates' PocketMac Pro (www.pocketmac.net) synchs your Pocket PC's contacts, calendar, and tasks with Entourage, iCal, or Address Book. It also lets you transfer many types of files. The latest version, the $42 PocketMac Pro 3.0, has a slew of new capabilities, including synching over Bluetooth, synching of e-mail and Web bookmarks, new PocketMac Pro themes that make your Pocket PC more Mac-like, and installation of Pocket PC software using your Mac. It also supports OS X apps such as iSync, iTunes, and iPhoto.
Another version of the software, PocketMac Phone Edition 3.0 ($29), works with Microsoft Windows Mobile–based Smartphones. These nifty devices add PDA functionality to cell phones. -- jennifer berger
‘Book Bag of the Month: BOOQ
Sleek but strong, chic but rugged, Booq bags really stood out from the laptop-bag crowd on Macworld Expo San Francisco's show floor. The Mamba.XS ($70), for 12-inch iBooks and PowerBooks, was especially eye-catching, thanks to its small size (12 by 10 by 1.5 inches) and cool styling. On further inspection, we discovered its configurable straps, which let you wear it as a backpack, a messenger bag, or a briefcase. A look inside revealed a good number of useful, flexible pockets; bright orange panels; and a well-padded section that keeps a PowerBook or iBook totally separate from other stuff. The Boa.XL ($150) is very similar to the Mamba.XS, but it holds the larger laptops. The Mamba.XS has a back zipper that lets you zip the bag onto Booq's BooqPaq3 bag ($120), part of a rugged system that allows you to connect Booq's bags to fit many situations.
Booq covers the size gamut: the company offers sleeves for 12-inch iBooks and PowerBooks through 17-inch PowerBooks ($25 to $50) and a messenger bag for the 17-inch PowerBook, as well as iPod, phone, and PDA cases ($20 to $40). You can find Booq laptop bags at www.booqbags.com and at selected retailers in Los Angeles and New York. -- jennifer berger