Proxim Wireless Primer for the Newton

By Stacey Tenen
Copyright © 2000

Apple opened the floodgates to the wireless LAN with the release of the Apple Airport base station. Attractively priced at $299, the technology promised and delivered true ease of use and affordability to the customers seeking to free themselves from cat 5 cable tethering in their preferred computing environment.

The Newton Angle

Well, having cancelled the production of the Newton far in advance of the release of the Airport, Apple has seen fit to ignore the pleas of the Newton community for a Newton driver to support any type of wLAN (wireless LAN) connectivity. The secret here is that Apple didn’t invent the technology… Proxim has been in the business of expanded bandwidth wireless technology for many years and have marketed their products solely to vertical markets (healthcare and insurance industries) until recently. So, considering the Newton was originally a strong vertical market performer in those same industries, Proxim saw fit to write a driver for their RangeLan2 product line. It has to be said at this point that there is a fundamental difference between the RangeLan2’s specifications and the current 802.11 specifications (the one used by Apple and other vendors). The RangeLan2 uses FHSS (Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum) technology while the 802.11 specifications call for DSSS (Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum) making the two technologies incompatible. Is that a real problem? Not really, because Proxim’s stuff works well and is competitively priced (read: more expensive but won’t cause you to visit a mortgage broker).

The Bits & Pieces

What exactly do you need to make all of this happen? This depends a lot on your network environment. If you’re a home user and have a dial-up connection to the Internet, you’ll need a Symphony Cordless Modem (part number 4500-05) and if you’re in an ethernet connected environment, you’ll also need Symphony Ethernet Bridge (part number 4920-05). For the Newton you’ll need RangeLan2 CE PC Card (part number 7410). Lastly, and worst of all, you’ll need access to a Windows laptop or desktop of some sort in order to properly configure the access points. I strongly suggest you make friends with someone owning a Windows box that you can borrow. If you’re going to use a borrowed laptop, you’ll need Symphony Cordless PC Card (part number 4402-05) and if you’re going to use a desktop, you’ll need either Symphony Cordless ISA Card (part number 4110-05) or Symphony Cordless PCI Card (part number 4110-05) depending on what type of slot is available in the desktop PC. Some of these items are available from various Internet discounters at a significant discount so don’t be too put off by the suggested retail prices.

I strongly suggest you buy these components with a credit card, and from a company with a liberal return policy that doesn’t include a restocking fee. You’ll probably want to return the card you use to configure the basestation to save a few bucks — but be aware that if anything in your configuration changes (say an ISP password, for instance), you’ll need the card again to reconfigure the access point.

One Last Issue

Notice the ‘bridge’ portion of the title of the ethernet access point. A bridge is a piece of equipment that looks at the destination address of every packet on a segment of a network and either passes or drops the packet based on certain criteria (I won’t go into detail here to avoid having you fall asleep). If you intend to use the ethernet bridge on a busy, unsegmented or routed network, think again. The bridge they supply isn’t industrial strength, and can be easily bogged down to a non-functional crawl by even a 6-8% baseline utilization figure. If you plan to use the bridge on a busy network with a lot of broadcasting, plan to protect the bridge with a router or a good switch (not one of the $150 ones seen in CompUSA today — they’re rather ineffective at limiting traffic). I found this out the hard way!

Phew!

Already sounds complicated? Well, it’s not really that bad. Please note: this is not meant to be a treatise on the basics of TCP/IP networking — if you need help with the in’s and out’s of network configuration I can help on a limited basis. I’m going to focus now on my implementation of the Proxim equipment. I’m willing to help others on other implementations using our Live Support option found on the Newted home page.

I have an ADSL connection at home, so I chose the Symphony Ethernet Bridge as my access point. I have a privately addressed network that is connected to ADSL through a router that does NAT for me allowing me to share my single IP address amongst many devices. You need not choose a static IP address for your Symphony bridge, unless you’ll be using NPDS to serve web pages from your newt wirelessly (I can just see Paul Filmer’s mental wheels turning at light speed). After connecting your bridge to your ethernet network and powering the unit on, you’ll need to set up your borrowed Windows box with the Symphony configuration utilities called Maestro. This comes on the CD-ROM with either your Symphony PC Card or PCI/ISA card. Setup is rather simple for the software — follow the directions in the box to load it. Do not, under any circumstances, put the card in the machine without first loading the software from the CD — otherwise you’ll end up with a bit of a mess (a yellow ‘?’ in your device manager telling you it doesn’t know what to do with your card which you’ll have to remove from the device list later to do a proper installation of the software and card). Once the software and card are configured, you’ll run the Maestro configuration utility and give the access point it’s configuration information for your network.

In my case, I gave my access point a private, static IP address of 192.168.1.5 (my router and default gateway address is 192.168.1.1). Don’t change any of the default settings other than this (such as domain number which should be set to the default of ‘0’). Why you ask? The Newton driver isn’t capable of changing the domain number it tries to connect to, so if the domain number isn’t ‘0’, you’re going to have to reconfigure the access point again. After configuring the access point with what you think are your proper IP settings, make sure you test your connectivity with the laptop/desktop first to ensure that you can pull a web page. If you cannot work with the laptop/desktop at this point, then you should analyze the settings you chose and try again because you will not be able to do any access point configuration with your Newton, and diagnostics from the Newton side are very limited (Newton’s TCP/IP stack is incapable of PING ECHO and Trace Route functionality). This is key — from the Start menu on your now wirelessly enabled laptop, select ‘Run…’ and type ‘winipcfg’ and click ‘OK’. Write down the following information:

  1. TCP/IP address
  2. Network Mask
  3. Default Gateway

You’ll need this information to set up your Newton’s networking later.

Configure the Newton

The Newton 2.1 OS, as loaded from the factory, contains a file called ‘Newton Devices’. If you’ve ever wondered what this file does, wait no longer. When you insert a PC card into your Newton, the OS looks to this file to compare the ‘PNP’ information provided by the card to the headers in this file. If it finds a match, or something close, you get a message like, “A communications card has just been inserted.” Apple didn’t anticipate the use of certain cards, the Proxim card among them, so the programmers at Proxim wrote not only a Newton driver, but also updated this Newton Devices file with the header string for their card. So, in order to use the 7410 card, you’ll need to replace the Newton Devices file on your Newton with the one provided by Proxim, as well as install the Proxim driver.

How to do this? First, download these packages — Proxim RangeLan2 and Newton Devices. Use NCU (Newton Connection Utilities) or some other package installer to download these packages from your desktop machine and make sure you install them to the store where the current Newton Devices file exists (for most of you, this will be the internal 4MB store). Once the package begins to be installed, your desktop machine will prompt you asking whether you wish to overwrite the file on the Newton with the package you’re uploading — allow that to happen. Also install the Proxim driver to the internal store. Take a breath.

Reboot your Newton at this point. Once the packages have finished loading, insert the 7410 Proxim card and wait a moment or two. You should be presented with two dialogues. The first to show up will tell you a bit about the PC card, and one will pop up shortly thereafter with an ‘Exception’ error. Dismiss that dialogue… it won’t affect the use of your card or Newton (in my experience). Not look at the Proxim configuration dialogue. If you plan to use the card for Appletalk as well as TCP/IP communications, check that box. If not, leave it alone. No need to bind two protocols and gunk up the works if it isn’t necessary.

Finally, you’ll need to go to the ‘Internet Setup’ application on your Newton and set up your TCP/IP information. I suggest here that you use the same configuration information that you wrote down from the laptop/desktop you used to configure your laptop/desktop earlier. You’ll also need your DNS server addresses given to you by your ISP to make your TCP/IP configuration complete.

What Now?

If you’ve followed my directions carefully, you should be surfing and emailing and usenetting from the toilet at this point. Performance is quite good considering the Newton has trouble keeping up with anything above 56k bandwidth — the Proxim ethernet solution provides a maximum wireless throughput of 1.6Mb per second (T1 speed). I’ve found that multitasking on these connections to be quite solid and useful — downloading mail, newsgroup articles, and web pages at the same time on a MP2100 is quite snappy. Avoid starting a new download until the first download configures and powers up the card. In other words, if you want to multitask, begin an email session and allow it to begin downloading before initiating another connection. If you don’t do this, you may get a series of endpoint errors that will require a reboot of your Newton.

The 7410 Card uses 265ma of power in operational mode — a smaller power draw than most Megahertz PC modems that people use with their Newtons — so you can expect very good runtimes using the wireless LAN that you’ve set up. The card also draws only 5ma in ‘sleep’ mode so keeping the card in the Newton while writing a note or doing some PIM operations isn’t a problem.

Again, The Newted Community is here to help you with this project. If you ever require assistance, please visit our MessageBoards and post there with your questions. There are plenty of Community members with extensive TCP/IP networking experience willing and able to assist.

Other resources:

See also: Proxim Wireless Newton Primer Update

Disclaimer

The Newted Community can be held in no way responsible for the usability of the technology described above. The responsibility for the usability of this technology lies with the company manufacturing the products you have purchased or acquired. If you have any question as to the applicability of this technology to the Newton MessagePad, please contact Proxim before you buy any products and inquire as to their policy and guarantee on Newton usability. The above article describes one user’s experience with this technology and does not intend to represent what you may or may not have success with.

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