What You Mean Isn’t What I Mean

Back from holiday, and dealing with subtle incompatibilities.

I have a new toy, a Netgear MP101.  Like many people who hang around technology, all the music I listen to lives on hard drives these days.  The various PCs around the house all stream mp3s over the cables or WLAN, and all very fine and dandy it is too.  However, I’ve just bought a hi-fi to go in the conservatory.  The shiny new conservatory which must not (by order of those with more domestic clout than I) be sullied with wires, especially of the CAT5 variety and must definitely not contain any sort of computing apparatus.

So I sets out to connect the MP101 to my network.  I tend to use D-Link kit, not after any sort of rigorous testing regime but because I’ve got used to it and it works for me (and for the several clients I’ve installed WLANs for).  I also use WEP as a matter of course, with a nice ASCII key.  So, of course, I dial the same key into the MP101.  And it fails to connect.  I turn off WEP to test; all is well.  Turn it back on; no connection.  Check the keys – identical.  Try a new key.  Still no connection.

At this point I’m sure you’re thinking as I did; Google is your friend, so I did a little research and found nothing about problems with Netgear and DLink kit.  But I did find some vaguely related discussions about the algorithms for generating keys from ASCII and how they’re not standardized…

Surely enough, that was it.  DLink and Netgear each have their own way of deriving a 128-bit key from an ASCII sequence, and they’re not the same.  Luckily enough, the web interface to my DLink DWL2000 lets me see the hex value for the key – punch that into the MP101 and lo!  All connects.  Let joy be unconfined, etc.

As an aside; this is the sort of asinine annoyance that really gets to me when dealing with technology.  It wouldn’t have been that difficult for there to have been a standard, or even for the various vendors to make their kit try more than one algorithm (if key doesn’t work, try another algorithm, then another, etc).  The entire point of having an ASCII key is to make life easier for the poor unfortunate non-technical-specialist who has to buy and install this stuff.  If I had to point a finger at one way in which self-interest makes life worse for geeks, it’d be this sad attempt at vendor lock-in.  On the other hand, never ascribe to malice that which is explained by incompetence[1] – I suspect that it’s actually quick-and-dirty product development that’s to blame.

Then, of course, the firewall on XP SP2 blocks the media server so the MP101 can see the tracks but not play them… but that’s another story, and yet another reason to move the server functionality to a Linux box with RAID drives.  Another project for the long winter evenings that draw ever nearer.  I may even go and think about whilst listening to streamed music…

[1] I attribute this quote to Jerry Pournelle, but others claim different sources.  No matter; it’s a good maxim whoever coined it.

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