There seems no end to wireless-dependent products, whether they work over WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G/4G, or even traditional remote control. This is despite modern wireless communications bearing only passing resemblance to Marconi’s miracles at the end of the 19th century. Morse and ‘wireless telegraphy’ have long since gone, and only the small stalwart band of radio hams still talk to one another over long distances.
Wireless computer networking is surprisingly old, originating with ALOHAnet, one of the first steps towards the Internet when it connected the University of Hawaii to mainland USA in 1971. Its underlying concepts were formative in the development of Ethernet; it was also the first step in what became Inmarsat, the maritime satellite network, and grandfather to 1G then 2G mobile phones in the last couple of decades of the 20th century.
We now have an abundance of devices and implementations developed from that pioneering work. AirPort or Wifi in various guises links Macs, media servers, and iPads. Bluetooth binds mobile phones, keyboards, and the tap-and-twiddle Magic Trackpad. iPads and iPhones keep in touch (almost) wherever you go via 3G or better (if you’re lucky). Apart from the occasional mains and charger leads, we have cast aside the bond of cables.
But don’t throw your old USB keyboard and mouse away just yet. Radio may be miraculous and magic, but it can also be mercurial and mystifying.
When I treated myself to a Magic Trackpad, I decided to switch to a dinky little wireless aluminium keyboard, small enough to rest on the pile of scrap paper on which I used to scrawl notes. There it rested, duly and daily accepting bursts of keystrokes as I wrote my columns for MacUser, answered emails, and so on, until the keyboard developed a will of its own.
At first it just lagged behind my typing, making me wonder if some Trojan was capturing my keystrokes and relaying them to a competitor publication. I checked some sensitive areas of my OS X installation, but as my mind was easing its suspicion, the keyboard started to duplicate letters that I had pressed. At times it spewed out ts with salivary vengeance, halting attempts to type URLs. If I hit the backspace to arrest this stream, it went into reverse, gobbling up my hard-won words.
My demon keyboard conspired with the Trackpad to render some lines uneditable: no matter where I put the cursor, each attempt to insert a character blew the whole line away. I kept checking the keyboard’s battery level, but it never fell below 90%, although by now the trackpad had dropped well below 50% with nary a missed tap.
I tried pressing the power button on the keyboard, and it responded with a new trick. Half way through a sentence, my Mac informed me that the connection with the keyboard was lost. I pressed the power button again, and again, before it finally reconnected. Even a set of fresh batteries did nothing to assuage the demon.
I fell back on my ham radio experience, wondering whether something that I had done was rotting up its radio connection. With new batteries installed, I pulled the scrap paper pad from under the keyboard, and suddenly it kept its connection and adhered to my every keypress. Problem sssolveddd!
Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 26 issue 25, 2010.