Mike Puchol, aka “Mother” on boards.fon.com, writes the tech.am blog and is at the DEMO 2007 software convention this week. He’s there to kick-off his new startup company which offers an ingenious new approach for sharing wifi. He probably also wants to kick me for the corny blog title.
I’ve sat on this news for a day while I tried Whisher out, and chatted with Mike about some of the geeky details. Blogs I have read mostly play Whisher as a challenge to Fon, which provides an alternative wifi-sharing solution. Prominent partners in Whisher have previous ties to Fon President Martin Varsavsky, and I fear the digital Press is looking for rivalry and warfare where not much really exists.
It works with any wifi router/AP with WEP or WPA encryption. Sharers have detailed control over who may use their wifi, as well as tools to build social communities while online, and find hotspots that are part of the network.
Whisher was rolled out Jan 30, after being under development for almost a year. Their website provides extensive pictoral and animated tutorials, their hotspot search map, blog, discussion board and software downloads. Disclosure: I am not affiliated with Whisher (yet); I am simply a beaming new admirer.
Fon requires the use of their proprietary La Fonera AP, or the use of their own firmware only, on certain Linksys and Buffalo wifi routers. Non-contributing users of The Fon Network must pay a fixed fee for 24 hours of access. Contributors have the option of sometimes recieving a small portion of the income. Payment and authentication is negotiated entirely through web browsers.
Whisher requires no special router firmware, configuration or host software, but does require installing the Whisher client application in order to sign up, use Whisher hotspots, and to designate and manage hotspots being shared. Sharers may still shut down their computers and leave their hotspots up for others to use. Versions of the client may be downloaded for Windows XP, Macintoshes, and Linux. Whisher does not provide a payment system, as all Whisher hotspots are free. Advanced features, which are yet to be defined or implimented, may require payment.
The Windows client is intended for XP, but can still access social features under Windows 2000 (as I use). I had issues with finding Microsoft Visual Studio files that it needed on launch. Upon launching, the client presents a display of available hotspots to connect to. This closely resembles Microsoft’s own Zero Config control, and apparently requires it’s services behind the scenes.
One may use Whisher to connect to any hotspot found in range, and even use it to save connection profiles for them. Hotspots which are designated as Whisher hotspots will display extended information, as well as use the Whisher logo (following a quick database update of hotspots from their server). To make your hotspot available for other Whishers, first use the client to connect to it, and enter the WEP/WPA key (all Whisher hotspots must offer encryption). Then, you have the option of adding it to the Whisher Network with a couple of clicks, and typing a welcome message. It will show up on Whisher’s hotspot map and Whishers that subscribe to location updates for that area will be able to identify it and connect to it using the client application.
While connected, one may IM buddies using Whisher’s own chat system, which is planned to have compatability with MSN, AIM, ICQ and Yahoo. Folks using different IM clients may be able to join together into combined chatrooms, as with Trillian (Pro?). One may also join a chat room containing everyone connected to the same AP, and other user-definable categories. Each participant may share files from their laptop hard-drives and make them visible to everyone, or just certain groups or particular people. Additional tabs allow control over filesharing, personal options, geolocation and map searching. Whisher also intends to add remote router management, which will work by interfacing the router’s web management server directly.
EDIT: Dema has created an exellent pictoral tour of Whisher in his blog entry 2/9.
Pros: Unlike Foneros, Whishers enjoy the maximum encryption available by the hardware in the wifi router/AP being used. Whisher will likely work with any wifi-router/AP that now exists, and for the forseeable future. It will be a great advantage for folks who can’t or won’t reflash their router firmwares. It allows folks to admit access to friends, family, and others without revealing, or having to remember, their WEP or WPA keys. Social activity is built into the client itself. These venues are expandable, and actually available even when you are at non-Whisher hotspots, you only need internet access. Abusers of a hotspot can have their privledges selectively revoked, without changing the encryption key.
Cons: Some people may be unable, or unwilling, to install an application on their computers. The client needs to be allready downloaded, and perhaps updated, before one may connect to the hotspots. This presents a chicken-and-the-egg problem for somone who can’t get on at such a hotspot in order to download it. There exists some chance that the downloaded, encrypted database of APs and their keys might be cracked and exposed. Currently, if a sharer changes her SSID or encryption key, people previously connected there may have to get online another way in order to update their locations file and get back on there again. Laptop-based software will lack the intrinsic power of firmware physically loaded on the router. Routers which lack certain features, like MAC blocking and AP isolation may present security problems which Whisher cannot overcome.
Ideas: Members of buddy groups might be empowered to join in a Hamachi-like virtual network, creating connections beyond a single AP and providing powerful abilities for gamers and businesspeople (fax modems, remote desktops). The client might be given a host mode, which would be run on a dedicated computer to provide VPN or web proxy service, or permanent shared storage space. Wifi routers with “WPA-RADIUS” ability could allow access to Whishers without even needing to download a shared key in advance; it could be based on their Whisher login.
Whisher -vs- Fon
Anyone who really understands the system Fon uses can see that they aren’t perfect rivals. Fon is a for-pay system requiring proprietary firmware, Whisher is a for-free system requring a client download. They dwell in the same ecosystem, but occupy different niches. They can even work together.
As of this afternoon, I have made the private SSID of my proprietary La Fonera router, from Fon, serve double-duty as a Whisher hotspot as well! As my router’s firmware and configuration are entirely untouched, and I intend to continue offering the Fon hotspot, this almost certainly does not break my dreaded “Fonero Promise”.