Share your network with friends and colleagues without managing passwords, says Whisher, but that's just for now: Stealth startup Whisher comes out of the woods today with an approach for allowing simple access to secured networks at homes and small businesses, as well as free hotspots. Whisher requires the use of a "heavy" (read: large) client application that's available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. The program handles account and password management; there's no configuration changes or firmware required for access points. "It's not about reflashing routers at all," said Ferran Moreno, Whisher's CEO and co-founder.
To share a network, you create an entry, enter its password (if any), and choose buddies that can access it. "You can create your own Wi-Fi community, by deciding with whom you share and when," Moreno said. Buddies must download and install Whisher, and create accounts. There's no cost for the software or this functionality. Hotspots that want to be open and free can still protect access via WEP and WPA, and use Whisher as the "bar to entry." (The trick is that each copy of Whisher has an encrypted database storing passwords for all open networks, and the passwords for buddy networks.)
The buddy notion bypasses the need to provide friends and colleagues with your network password, or even co-workers in a small-business environment. The centralized management means a single change flows the modified password to your buddies, or to everyone for open networks.
The application includes file transfer software and instant messaging, but both features are currently limited to allow exchanges only over the local Wi-Fi network for registered users. That limit means that someone who installs the Whisher application and doesn't register for an account can still access free hotspots, but if they want additional local features, they'll need to create an account. A hotspot can keep a CD or memory stick handy for customers to install the Whisher software, which doesn't require a restart under Mac OS X, at least, to get up and running.
Whisher represents a pendulum swing back from the Web-based gateway access that I would argue has plagued the hotspot industry. The gateway page took hold before 802.1X supplicants were a viable way to allow access. (Windows XP and Mac OS X have included supplicants for at least three years; Unix/Linux flavors have free and for-fee supplicants available.) If the hotspot concept started up today, it's pretty clear that a standard login methodology around 802.1X would be adopted for simplicity and security. (T-Mobile's Connection Manager uses 802.1X seamlessly, for instance, and has for years.) When you read complaints about how Wi-Fi doesn't work as a public access means, almost always the complaint is either with cost, or with the trouble in producing an authentication session through a gateway page. (I was just wrestling with AT&T FreedomLink's ugly approach to this on a recent trip.)
By putting the intelligence in client software, the company has to deal with supporting multiple platforms, but with the massive heterogeneity of Wi-Fi routers, that may be a simpler win than dealing with creating one's own firmware or pushing out custom routers, which has been Fon's approach.
(Moreno said he worked with Fon founder Martin Varsavsky, but left over differences in achieving similar communities and scale. Varsavsky disputes this over at Business 2.0. Moreno said that Whisher could absolutely work on top of Fon's network as an application to ease access, provide local network services, and even content based on location, as the software could do on any network. CTO and co-founder Mike Puchol has engaged in rather public Fon-baiting and criticism, including a lot of back and forth with Varsavsky in their respective blogs: Varsavsky, Puchol.)
Downloading an application used to be the kiss of death when broadband was scarce, and it sometimes seems antithetical to the Web 2.0 aesthetic of AJAX-based browser intelligence. The Whisher app ties into that, though, by using an embedded browser, and intra-program updates. "It won't be any more welcome page, enter your credentials, and so forth -- it will be a uniform experience," said Moreno, and that's really the key.
The company hopes to see revenue by leveraging its application as a way to deliver advertising for hotspot networks, and as a vehicle for hotspot and metro-scale Wi-Fi operators to resell service through a client that someone may already have installed. As with Devicescape's device-oriented model, Whisher will use Web-based accounts eventually to handle credit card numbers or other payment mechanisms, as well as other centralized account details. "We're leaving it open to be integrated with any WISP or any technology it has for authentication and billing and so on," said Puchol.
Comparing Boingo, Devicescape, Fon, and Whisher
Boingo: Software client for Mac OS X and Windows mediates access to aggregated partner Wi-Fi networks. A monthly subscription fee allows unlimited access via computer to US locations and some international locations. Many international hotspots have metered, negotiated per-minute or other rates. A new VoIP offering includes unlimited VoIP worldwide at participating locations. $22 per month or $8 per session, plus metered rates at some international locations (noted in their hotspot finder). Boingo has north of 60,000 hotspots signed.
Devicescape: Embedded software that Devicescape wants manufacturers to include in their handheld products, and that can be installed on some devices, allows access at public hotspots that require authentication by tunneling login information via DNS. The handheld device stores no authentication information, and uses the tunneled credentials and other details to perform the login; entering credentials and account details occurs at a Web site. Devicescape wants to establish the notion of per-device sub-accounts at hotspots and aggregators, allowing a single user to use more than one phone, game console, camera, and PDA--with perhaps different, small monthly rates for each--at the same time. Free, but requires accounts at hotspot networks. Supported networks include AT&T FreedomLink, Fon, and T-Mobile USA. (Support does not indicate the hotspot operator approves or works with Devicescape's system.)
Fon: Grassroots and commercial network built one at a time, with individuals flashing commercial, commodity gateways from Linksys and others with special firmware, or purchasing typically subsidized routers that are preconfigured. Network sharers, called Foneros, can choose to charge for access to their hotspot or share it for free. Those who charge receive half the revenue. Those who share can access any other shared Fon location for free. Non-Foneros pay for usage everywhere; those who share for free receive none of the revenue from non-members using their location. Fon's model may extend beyond flashed/custom routers soon with the release of Mac OS X software that turns a Mac into a Fon hotspot, allowing routing from a cell data network (cell operators uniformly disallow this in the US, but it would be difficult to track). Fon claims tens of thousands of active Fon hotspots, but I can't find a citation for their current count. Their mapping software shows registered users and active locations.
Whisher: Client application for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux allows access to password-protected (WEP/WPA) public and private networks coupled with a Web-based account for management. Any Whisher user can access public networks; private networks require inclusion in a buddy list. No special hardware required. Free software, free buddy lists.