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Change the router experience, rule the world

Networking is now the heart of the home. But why is it still such an awful experience?

Here's a thought: the TV is no longer the most important entertainment device in the house. It's the router.

As we move our lives increasingly into the cloud and more devices become connected, more and more relies on the little wireless box that could.

So if the router is now the most important device in the house, why the heck haven't the router manufacturers stepped up? Why are there still horror stories about instability? Why is it I have to tell people, when asked which brand router they should buy, that you can't trust brands — only specific models of routers?

Buy cheap, get cheap

Routers are complex. Just ask anyone who's done a networking certification — any router needs to take a ridiculous amount of standards into account, and then distil all of that into a working chipset.

It has to do this while trying to hit a certain price point, potentially meaning reduced quality control and acceptance of certain levels of bugs (even incredibly well tested hardware has bugs — just check out Intel's errata on its latest Core chips). What this means is that at some point, you just have to accept that a strange bug can't be resolved within your budget, hope it's addressed in the next revision and move on.

That chipset then gets incorporated into a networking company's router, which that company then has to write firmware for to get everything working. It's a huge task, which in itself can add extra bugs to the whole process. Since we're talking consumer market, price point is even more important, meaning that things like say, usability get left off the list compared to putting it in a pretty box that someone might want to put in their lounge room.

There are so many wireless devices out there that it's understandable that a company cannot test against all of them. But we still need so much better QA and QC. Routers must be rock solid — so much in the home now relies on them. I know I'd pay more to ensure a reliable, hassle-free experience, and those companies that start pitching on reliability rather than speed, or something useless like apps, are going to get my attention.

Usability and engagement are key

There are few things more frustrating in tech than setting up a router. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Why do I need a CD to set up my router? Why isn't all of that functionality already in the web interface?

Further still, why do I need a PC to configure it? Why do I even need a cable? Why can't I do it from my Android Phone, iPhone, TV, console, tablet, if I spend the majority of my connected life on one of these devices? If a Synology NAS can manage to remotely enable certain features of my router, why can't other devices? Netgear has at least started this ball rolling — it will have Android and iOS apps out in March, although we have yet to see if it can set the router up right out of the box.

Upon asking a particular representative why router web interfaces were so slow and unattractive, I was told there wasn't enough processing power on board. While that may be true of the AU$50 models, that's no excuse for anything AU$100 and up.

If I can get a smartphone for AU$209 that has an 800MHz processor, an infinitely more responsive and animated graphical interface, and a touch-enabled screen; surely getting just a decent processor and fast flash memory in a router to run a decent web interface would be a cheap affair? Heck, HTML5, CSS and JavaScript should make building a fancy yet usable interface a cinch. The best I've seen so far comes from AVM, and even that could be improved upon.

The interface needs to be compelling and easy to use, no matter what device is accessing it — you want users to engage with the device, not forget it exists. Per device bandwidth monitoring and management would be a good start. Easily readable graphs play into it, too. Contextual help, especially one that doesn't rely on online access, would be a massive boon. Give people advanced power with simple controls. We're in the age of data: don't be afraid of giving it to us.

In saying that, don't shun the advanced user either — if I choose the advanced interface, I expect the router to remember this, and always display it. I also don't want to have to go back to the basic interface to find options that aren't present in the advanced, and I want to be able to make decisions for myself, like to broadcast only on 802.11n, and not be forced to a mixed mode. We're talking DD-WRT or Tomato levels of tweaking here. Enable the user, don't restrict.

In short, it's time to hire some UI and UX people.

It's not just the interface, though, but usability. Some recent routers actually restart every time you apply a setting change. So if you just want to say, turn off DHCP, that's a 20- to 45-second wait. Even worse, if you make changes to just the wireless settings, all your wired clients get dumped while the router restarts. This isn't just entry-level stuff, this turns up on AU$250 flagship products. If only wireless settings change, why isn't just the wireless stack restarted? Why restart the whole machine? The experience needs to be smooth in order to be engaging and not frustrating.

Until recently, one router company didn't allow spaces in SSIDs — utterly bizarre. But stranger still was its introduction of "self-healing" — essentially, the router restarts itself on a scheduled basis just in case things got a bit unstable.

It's a tacit admission that no one's actually working on fixing the issues; they'd rather just work around it. This is unacceptable for a device that now holds such importance in the home.

So, a challenge to router companies: you need to chase pervasiveness, usability, reliability, engagement and responsiveness. Heck, this even comes with its own built-in marketing acronym: a PURER networking experience.

You've got so much more to worry about than how attractive the box looks. Hop to it.