The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

MetaGeek, Hard Not to Love/Hate this Company

Posted by Deliverator on March 5th, 2008

MetaGeek makes a neat little gadget called the WiSpy, which is basically a poor man’s spectrum analyzer for the 2.4 ghz band. A spectrum analyzer shows you a realtime graph of radio power vs frequency. Because the 2.4 ghz band is used by a plethora of different consumer wireless devices including 802.11b/g/n WiFi gear, cordless phones, wireless security cameras, baby monitors, wireless home theater speaker systems, microwave ovens, etc., I often encounter interference issues between these disparate devices. The WiSpy has come in particularly handy for me while setting up or troubleshooting wireless networks for clients. I’ve had clients whose wireless networks drop out sporadically. With the help of the WiSpy, I’ve been able to demonstrate to clients in a visually convincing way that they need to get a new phone (or in the case of non spread spectrum devices, change the channel), or that their microwave oven is leaky.

I purchased a WiSpy from Ken from Metrix after seeing him play with one at SWN Hacknight. I paid around $100 for my WiSpy. At the time I purchased mine, there had long been promises of an improved version with an external antenna connector (useful because you can plug in a directional antenna and use it to track down a specific signal source), more rapid frequency hoping, and finer frequency and power discernment, but the company had failed to deliver on their announcements and people were becoming skeptical. The existing WiSpy did what I wanted, so I paid my $100 and was happy to do so. Several people including Rob Flickenger hacked their units to add an external antenna jack. In doing so, they discovered that inside the Wispy’s custom plastic case was a generic, notebook style, wireless mouse dongle. There was even a button on the PCB that one would press to associate it with the non-existent mouse. In essence, version 1 of the WiSpy was $5 of non-custom hardware and the other $95 was going towards the software.

At some point, MetaGeek decided that the WiSpy (which was still the same old mouse dongle + software) was now worth $200. The software, called Chanalyzer has always been a free download from their website for existing owners and has steadily improved over time both in terms of stability and in features. I’ve been using the 3.0 version of the Chanalyzer software for quite some time now with my mouse dongle/WiSpy and the software was finally feeling mature. Metageek finally got around to introducing the long promised version 2 of the WiSpy hardware, which it is calling WiSpy 2.4x. The modest bump in functionality (for most users) on the 2.4x comes with a 4x increase over the WiSpy’s original price to $400. This puts it well outside the geek toy price range and I know this move disappointed a lot of the original WiSpy’s userbase. Now, a lot of WiSpy users are up in arms as the latest versions of Chanalyzer 3.0 no longer supports the version 1.0 Wispy. The way that MetaGeek went about doing this was damn sneaky too. I fired up Chanalyzer today to troubleshoot an interference issue and was greeted with message stating the a new version of the software was available. Upon upgrading, I was locked out of using Chanalyzer with a message stating more or less that Chanalyzer was no longer supporting the original WiSpy, but I could upgrade for a mere $300 if I wanted to continue using Chanalyzer or would have to downgrade to Chanalyzer 2.x if I wanted to keep using my WiSpy.  MetaGeek’s response to one p’d off user was less than helpful. They cite typical hand-wavy difficulties in continuing in supporting a single codebase across multiple hardware platforms going forward…yada yada yada. I can understand that going forward they want to emphasize support on their current product line, but the point is that they already have a 3.0 version which works well with the version 1.0 hardware. To suddenly force WiSpy 1.0 users into either a significant downgrade in functionality or to pay a very heft $300 has all the appearance of a dirty money grab. Pulling the carpet out from under a customer in an extent to further shake their pockets is never a smart move imo and could very easily backfire. The WiSpy 1.0 hardware already functions quite well with several third party software packages. EaKiu for the Mac is particularly impressive. I can very easily see a backlash to MetaGeek’s behavior in the form of one of these software packages going out and simply supporting a commonly available mouse dongle. The equivalent of WiSpy 1.0 hardware for $30 or less combined with free software would satisfy most people’s use cases for the WiSpy and would probably result in a large scale loss of customers for MetaGeek. The only equitable action imo is for MetaGeek to allow WiSpy 1.0 users the option of continuing to use the last compatible build of 3.0 as an unsupported option.

That about wraps it up in the hate department. On the love side, MetaGeek recently released a free utility called Inssider (not a misspelling) which is a slick wireless network detection utility. It is obviously designed as a replacement to Netstumbler on the Windows platform.  Netstumbler has not seen a new release in a long time and doesn’t work with a lot of the newer Wifi cards or on Vista. The release of a viable alternative on the Windows platform is welcome news indeed. Inssider is not yet up to par with Kismet in a lot of ways, but the two aren’t really direct competitors and will probably both find their uses. It is pretty hard to complain about free, anyways (although I usually find a way).