Time for sharp competitive intelligence

Wi-Fi has seen a lot of good and bad patent activity – but it’s rare for someone to admit just how broken the patent system is.

Nicholas Miller is hoping for a patent that he admits himself is “absurd”. His advisors tell him he has a good chance of getting it, so he’s going for it, even though it’s essentially a minor tweak to block a wireless weakness in Windows.

In 2003, Miller, then at a tiny Wi-Fi company called Cirond, told us Wi-Fi switches were dead and that we could get more out of 2.4GHz by using four not-quite-so overlapping channels. None of that seemed to happen.

This time round, he’s with AirPatrol (yes, that’s right, it’s not AirTight, AirDefense or AirMagnet, it’s another Wi-Fi security company beginning with “Air”). And he has AirSafe, a utility that stops laptops quietly puncturing the network by hooking up to evil-twin hotspots while they’re on the LAN (we covered a similar risk a couple of years ago).

The danger is that a laptop can go on sniffing for Wi-fi by default without the user being aware of it.  If a laptop is connected to the corporate wired LAN, the wireless card may still be looking for hotspots it remembers, such as the one at the user’s home. It’s possible to set up an “evil-twin”, a mock-up of that home hotspot, close to the office – when the laptop spots it and signs on, it makes a link from the office LAN to the evil twin, and exposes corporate data.

AirSafe is a basic tweak that adjusts the settings in Windows XP, to turn off the automatic Wi-Fi connection – a tweak that everyone should make to their laptops by default. And Miller is applying for a patent for it.

It’s like applying for a patent for software that turns off the annoying Windows start-up chime.

“I agree 100 percent you shouldn’t be able to patent this sort of thing,” he replied. “I think it’s completely absurd. But if you look at some of the patents filed by our competitors, they are ridiculously narrow. I filed this from a defensive standpoint.”

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