Most PowerBook owners will have bought their machine with a built-in AirPort card as standard. With one of these you can connect to the internet by simply being in the immediate vicinity of a wireless transmitter, inside what's known as a hotspot. It's easy to see why Wi-Fi hotspots are so popular. After all, there's no need to scrabble around to find a phone line to plug into and you don't need to wait to get all the way back to the office to access the network. Wireless hotspots are springing up faster than reality TV shows - you'll find them in bars, hotels, restaurants or service stations and you might be surprised to find that even your local pub is Wi-Fi-enabled. Just take a look at the Totalhotspots website (www.totalhotspots.com) to find your nearest hotspot. The chances are that unless you live in the Wi-Fi desert that is Wales, you'll be amazed at how many of them are within a few miles of your home.
What's intriguing is that recent data shows that Mac users are leading the way when it comes to taking advantage of hotspots. Recent anecdotal evidence from BT Openzone (www.btopenzone.com) shows that at recent major events such as May's Stella Artois Tennis Championship or the British F1 Grand Prix, the usage split between Mac and PC users reveals the Mac having an 80% share to the PC's 20%. And when you consider that there are considerably more PC users than Mac users out there, the disparity suddenly appears even more pronounced. So what lies behind this odd finding, and does it tell us anything we don't already know about the Mac community?
Back in the 80s
To answer this riddle we need to take a trip back to mid-1980s America and the birth of Wi-Fi. In 1985, the Federal Communication Commission opened up three chunks of radio spectrum from the industrial, scientific and medical bands (widely thought of as 'garbage bands') for use as a communication tool. Fast forward a further 14 years to 1999 and, having been standardised and officially named Wi-Fi (other potential names such as Dragonfly and FlankSpeed had mercifully fallen by the wayside), the technology was incorporated via a wireless port into Apple's iBooks. So Mac users had stolen a march on PC users, and when hotspots began to spring up the Mac population were the more tech-savvy.
But our 80/20 split doesn't just come down to Apple having been quickest off the mark. The other factor to consider concerns the people and professions that gain most from using hotspots. Chief among these are photographers, a group who continue to rely predominantly on Macs, and for whom the hotspots set up at major calendar events are a godsend in the face of ever-tighter deadlines. Jed Leicester, a dyed-in-the-wool Mac user and professional sports photographer who relied on the BT Openzone Wi-Fi hotspot network at the recent Stella Artois tournament, explains: "Before Wi-Fi, there was always a certain amount of angst involved in waiting to see if you could get a connection on your mobile, then waiting three to five minutes for each image to transmit.
"But using BT Openzone at the Stella Artois tournament meant that I would move between the courts to get my images, return to the media centre, load up the files and then email them. They went in the blink of an eye. Wi-Fi made an incredible difference to me as a freelance photographer."
So, if you've yet to sample the delights of a wireless hotspot, how do you catch up with your Wi-Fi-savvy Mac brethren? Firstly, you need the right kit, which includes fitting an AirPort Extreme card into your iBook or PowerBook, if it hasn't got one already. You can buy these for £59 from the Apple Store (www. apple.com/ukstore). The next thing you need to do is find yourself a hotspot. Have a look at the TotalHotspot website and see what you've got locally. Hotels and pubs are often wirelessly enabled, but, if all else fails, your local Starbucks is always a safe option and you can energize your brain with caffeine goodness while you surf. According to Chris Clark, CEO of BT Wireless Broadband, BT Openzone hotspots are available in over almost 7,000 selected public locations across the UK and Republic of Ireland.
Once you're within range of a hotspot, the AirPort icon on your menu bar will fill up with signal bars and you'll get the option of connecting to the network from the dropdown menu. Now comes the bad news: most hotspots require you to pay to access the web - and they're not cheap, either. Once you connect, Safari will fire up and you'll be prompted for your credit card details.
The lowest cost is in the region of £4.50 per hour for the hotspots provided by The Cloud, with BTOpenzone at the upper end of the scale at a massive £6 per hour. Connecting to the internet in Starbucks, which is on the T-Mobile network, isn't particularly cheap either, but sits between the two at £5 an hour.
It's this high price which is putting some people off trying hotspots, but if you are a regular hotspot user, you can save money by getting a monthly subscription to the hotspot provider. In BT Openzone's case, for example, you can subscribe for a monthly fee and save money in the long run.
So, while the Wi-Fi life may be desirable, it's going to prove expensive, unless you know where to go. There is an increasing number of free hotspots springing up all over the UK. They are still something of an underground secret and very much in their infancy, but if you go looking for them you'll find them... eventually. As you'd expect, the vast majority of free hotspots are in London, but you may be lucky in having one near you. Visit sites like www. freespot-uk.com and www.wififreenet.com to find their locations. For some strange reason, there seems to be a preponderance of free hotspots in Brighton. It must be all that sea air!
Leading the way in free hotspots is a company you're probably familiar with: Apple. Yes, every Apple store has a free Wi-Fi network, which is another reason to pop down to Regent Street with your iBook to have a look at what's on offer.
There's even more good news on the horizon. In line with the Government's agenda to make Britain the most e-enabled country in the world (now stop laughing at the back there) there's a new initiative being launched to provide Wi-Fi access in public buildings all over the UK. It's kicking off with the launch of wireless connectivity at the British Library - apparently, it's the largest public building wireless installation project in Europe. Wi-Fi hotspots currently exist in the entrance hall, the caf©, the restaurant and all the reading rooms, except those used for social sciences. Other hotspots cover the British Library's conference centre and the Piazza.
While the government's dream of a Wi-Fi-enabled Britain is happily trundling along at a snail's pace, it seems that the private sector has the real vision for such a conquest. Thanks to Nublu Technologies, Liverpool is set to be the UK's first truly wireless city. Within the next two months Nublu plans to create a wireless cloud over the whole city that anybody with a computer, laptop, PDA or mobile phone can access for a fee, of course. Subscriptions will cost £11.99 a month, with daily or weekly subscription rates for visitors, which is still a fraction of the cost of landline-based broadband, but with all the advantages of a wireless connection. There are a few interesting extras too: Nublu has already launched a wireless cloud in Amsterdam, and subscribers to the Liverpool network will get free access to the Amsterdam network as well - which might give you another excuse for making that weekend trip to the city of sin.
So while it's clear that the demand for wireless internet access is huge, there's another technology vying for the hearts and minds of the UK population, and it's 3G. With a 3G data card, a laptop user can get wireless access to the internet wherever they can get coverage.
The 3G service provides data speeds of up to 384 kbps - up to seven times faster than a standard fixed line dial-up connection, but much slower than Wi-Fi. It's really aimed at business users since it's a bit pricey. Tariffs range from £10 per month for a measly 5MB of data, to £75 for 100MB with additional data delivered on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Vodafone is first to the Mac market with its Mac-compatible 3G/GPRS data card and it's the Mac user's love of wireless technology that has attracted Vodafone to the market. Commenting on the Vodafone 3G/GPRS data card, Bill Morrow, CEO Vodafone UK, said, "Users of Apple Macs have a rich variety of working habits that we believe are ideally suited to the 3G environment. From business people through to designers and photographers, all of these pro communities have sub-groups, characterised by heavy and frequent mobile data use, that are devoted to the Mac."
BBC newsreader Darren Jordon is an early adopter with the Vodafone Mobile Connect 3G Data card, and has been using it in his Apple 15-inch G4 PowerBook. He said: "I am very impressed with this technology. The software is a great piece of ingenuity and automatically sets up its own network profile, which means that I didn't have to fiddle with any existing settings. Connection is straightforward and fairly quick. Every PowerBook owner is going to want one of these!"
At the moment, however, 3G coverage in the UK is best described as patchy, but the situation will improve over time. Chris Clark, CEO of BT Wireless comments. "BT sees these two technologies sitting together rather than competing. Wi-Fi is access on the pause, while 3G is access on the move. A business man could start his day with a meeting at a wireless hotspot, use a 3G data card to connect on a train journey, then use the LAN once they get to the office. It's with wireless connectivity that the Mac comes into its own in terms of usability. A lot of PC companies are struggling to keep up with the Mac in this respect."
So, the future for wireless Britain is looking rather bright at the moment, and Mac users remain at the cutting edge of wireless adoption.