Windows 8 will include mobile broadband as a specific connection type alongside wired and Wi-Fi networks, meaning that you should be able to use a USB dongle for mobile broadband simply by plugging it in. That sounds great. The problem is we've heard it all before.
In a blog post last week, Microsoft engineer Bily Anders detailed how Windows 8 will include mobile broadband as one of its major connection types. In a nod to the increasing popularity of mobiles, it will offer an 'airplane mode' option to switch off connections:
Windows 8 machines should also be able to maintain mobile broadband connections even in low-powered states, to automatically switch between Wi-Fi and mobile broadband depending on availability. You'll be able to track data usage on a specific connection type, and tell Windows to control download behaviour on that connection (blocking large update patches when on mobile broadband, for instance).
Microsoft also argues that reconnection times to Wi-Fi networks after going off standby will be dramatically faster:
All of that sounds very promising. However, the most immediate benefit of this switch is that we should no longer need specific installers just to use mobile broadband equipment:
In Windows 8, we developed an in-box mobile broadband class driver that works with all of these devices and eliminates your need for additional device driver software. You just plug in the device and connect. The driver stays up to date via Windows Update, ensuring you have a reliable mobile broadband experience.
All of that sounds wonderful in theory. The problem is that Microsoft's track record in actually getting manufacturers and telcos to adopt this kind of approach isn't great. As I pointed out on this very site back in 2009, Windows 7 included support for the Network Driver Interface Specification, which would have similarly made it possible for USB dongles to install simply by plugging in, rather than requiring a separate install program. Three years down the track, I have tested every mobile broadband device on the Australian market, and haven't found a single one that's bothered to support it.
The major difference with Windows 8 is that mobile broadband is now being surfaced as a specific connection type. That could drive telcos and hardware vendors to support it, but there's one big catch: that option is still only going to work on Windows 8 itself. As the oh-so-slow death of Windows XP demonstrates, millions of us are still running on older versions. So the instructions would need to tell people to do something different for Windows 8 than for other releases, and updated drivers would need to be available for existing equipment owners shifting to Windows 8.
In practice, vendors have decided to stick with an approach of using old and buggy software that might work on everything, rather than bothering to support a standard that will be much more reliable but won't work on newer devices. Many of them remain too cheap to even sign up to Microsoft's basic certification program, meaning you get a malware warning the first time you try to install them. All told, I can't see many of them taking a different approach this time around.
Also worth pointing out: telcos don't do any better a job of implementing those systems for Macs, and often do much much worse. On both platforms, you can just use the native networking/dialup capabilities to connect in a pinch, but it requires fiddly research, doesn't give you usage tracking or recharge abilities, and sometimes doesn't work regardless.
The final nail in this particular coffin? The increasing popularity of Wi-Fi hotspots, which don't require a specific driver because they work using Wi-Fi instead, which is already supported natively on every device that matters. I have issues with using hotspots, but their lack of driver drama is definitely a boon, and I can't help thinking that Microsoft's solution will arrive precisely too late to make any real difference.
Obviously, the variable reliability of mobile broadband drivers hasn't stopped us from taking them up in enormous numbers. But that's no excuse for not making them work better. Is taking all those annoyed support calls really worth the one-time saving of not developing a better approach? I hope the mobile broadband providers decide the answer is "no", and get on board with this new approach. But in truth, I'm not hopeful.
Engineering Windows 8 for mobile networks [Building Windows 8]
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman consumes mobile broadband the way Biggest Loser contestants consume everything in sight. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.