Dear lazyweb: what is is about Linux and WPA?

11 January 2008

I don’t think I really have enough of a readership for this blog to get an answer to this, but… perhaps someone passing by will know. Why is WPA support invariably so bad in Linux-based OSes?

Three examples:

1. Despite having been a Linux user since 1992, I held off on switching my primary laptop, an aging Fujitsu-Siemens machine, from Windows for many years because no distribution I could find supported WPA out of the box with any kind of user interface I was willing to spend the time learning. This is not because I’m lazy – I’m willing to put in weeks to learn web server configuration details, and years to learn programming languages. These things are inherently difficult and cannot be reasonably simplified. But connecting to an encrypted wireless network? Sure, the underlying tech is as complex as it gets, but if Microsoft can make it easy to use then why did it take so long for anything usable to get into any Linux distro? *Sigh*. Well, anyway, I eventually tried out Ubuntu 7.10, Gutsy Gibbon, and was delighted to discover that its support was OK. Not as good as Windows XP’s, but good enough for me to switch the old lappy over, which I did sometime last autumn, and have never regretted. So, standard defined in 2004 or so, decent support in mid-2007. Hmm.

2. So along came my new Eee, just before Christmas, and for some reason I have difficulties connecting to my work or home networks. Why? Well, I banged my head against it for a while, and eventually discovered that there was a bug in the scripts used for WPA connections that meant it could not connect if you had a key with a space in it. A bit of digging around on the XO Wiki helped me sort that one out, but seriously…

3. Anyhow, I posted earlier on today that I’d not been able to connect my OLPC XO to my work or home networks. No prizes for guessing what the problem was… from the Laptop.org wiki (found via):

WPA is not working from the User Interface in Build 650! Some OLPCs (including in the G1G1 program) cannot connect to wireless routers protected with the WPA protocol. Although the networks are visible from the OLPC, the stall when user enters a password.

The first solution they suggest is to switch off WPA. Right. Sorry, but I’m not Bruce Schneier, and there’s no way I’m switching to WEP. It’s almost enough to send me into some kind of Fake Steve Jobsesque rant.

Luckily, some kind soul has worked out a hack to work around the problem, so I’ll try that. [UPDATE, posted from XO: it works!]

But seriously – what is the problem? Linux is a great OS, but WPA support seems to be seriously messed up. It can’t just be a driver problem, because both the XO and the Eee have OSes built for them by the hardware manufacturers. Does anyone out there know?