Windows 7 includes new technology that might elevate mobile broadband software from its current status as (quite literally) a pile of garbage. But will telcos take advantage of it?
I spend a lot of time one way or another using mobile broadband services on my PC, and there are some pretty evident trends. Services continue to get cheaper even as speed and coverage range expands, to the point where it's almost realistic to contemplate using a 3G service as your only means of connection, provided you've done the appropriate research into coverage and price.
The biggest restriction is neither of these things, but the software. It does the job, just about, but not a day passes when I'm reliant on a mobile broadband connection when I don't experience a number of software bugs. Indeed, I'd argue that the client software for mobile broadband under Windows is the buggiest pile of rubbish being foisted on paying customers anywhere in the software spectrum. (The issue of Linux and Mac clients I'll leave for another time.)
Failure to connect, unexpected dropouts, inability to cope with those dropouts, random crashes, inability to recognise their own devices, and the ability to mangle your other connections at the same time are par for the course. That applies to all four major network providers on the market, and I doubt that the impending merger of Vodafone and 3 will change matters. (Getting Vodafone's software working on my Vista machine last year quite literally took months.)
What might improve matters is a fundamental structural change which is being introduced in Windows 7. As Microsoft tells it, one of the big problems with mobile broadband software is that it has to interface with a bunch of networking stuff which is probably better handled within Windows itself. There's a fair bit of merit in that argument -- I can remember the pre-Windows 95 days when you had to install your own TCP/IP stack to get Net connectivity, and that was normally an ugly scenario as well.
Anyway, an upgraded version of a protocol known as NDIS (Network Driver Interface Specification) should make the task simpler, by specifically supporting the development of 3G broadband drivers. There'll even be a logo program to certify that various broadband devices are WIndows 7-ready. At a slightly simplistic level, this means that the hardware companies will just need to build a basic USB driver, rather than the current everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach. Such drivers can also be built into a single client that will work (with more install grunt) on Vista systems as well, according to program lead Malayala Srinivasan.
That all sounds promising. The problem, of course, is that telcos have to take advantage of it. And the available evidence suggests that they won't.
The big giveaway here is that no-one whose software I've tried in the past few years has even bothered going through the basic Microsoft registration processes that stop your software being flagged as malware. Try installing Telstra's or Vodafone's or 3's client software and you'll get the same "An unidentifed program wants to access your computer" that you'll get with many an open source project (and the odd bit of malware). The difference is, of course, that big telcos should be able to afford the certification process to get their drivers actually recognised.
Given their terminal slackness in this department, I fear it will be some time before any of the major players rushes to take advantage of this new option -- and that's a pity. Mobile broadband is potentially extremely useful, but it's still far too unstable. Right now, I'd settle for less speed in favour of more reliability.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman hasn't yet tested mobile broadband on a boat, but it can only be a matter of time. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.