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Wi-Fi for handhelds gets a push

Wireless "hot spot" provider Boingo Wireless launches free software designed to make it easier for people with handhelds to use Wi-Fi networks.

Wireless "hot spot" provider Boingo Wireless on Thursday unveiled software meant to make it easier for people with handheld devices to use Wi-Fi wireless networks.

Connecting a PDA (personal digital assistant) to an 802.11 network via a hot spot--a public area outfitted with a wireless network--requires even more diligence and technical know-how on the part of users than taking a laptop for a similar Wi-Fi ride.

Typically, it involves several steps, including manually entering information about which wireless hot spot is being connected to, then trying to log onto the network. Most handhelds do not come packaged with software to automate that connection process.

The new Pocket Boingo software is designed to do most of that work itself using a "profile manager" to store different Wi-Fi network settings, company spokesman Christian Gunning said. It also includes a miniature version of a "sniffer," software that automatically finds the closest Wi-Fi network to the handheld user's location, he said.

Boingo Wireless is among the growing number of so-called WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers), companies selling daily, weekly or monthly access to wireless networks across the United States.

The PDA software will initially support Hewlett-Packard's iPaq 3600, 3700, 3800 and 3900 series devices using certain Promix and Compaq- and HP-branded Wi-Fi network interface cards, Gunning said.

Boingo Wireless says the Wi-Fi connection management software is the first of its kind for handheld devices. The free software is part of a push by wireless networking interests to incorporate the PDA into the mix of devices logging in to Wi-Fi networks.

Wi-Fi and PDAs make a relatively new combination. Generally, laptops are the vehicle of choice for the 6 million to 8 million U.S. networks capable of creating 300-foot wireless zones. But Patrick Hurley, a wireless analyst with TeleChoice, said a number of business travelers and very early adopters have taken to using handhelds instead of laptops while on the road.

That percentage of people with PDAs using Wi-Fi networks is now "very small," but should grow in the next few months with the arrival of handhelds with embedded Wi-Fi antennas, he said.

"There are...lots more business travelers that would rather carry a PDA on the road if it can provide (the computing power) they need," Hurley said.