No, There Was Nothing Controversial About Wi-Fi Sense

Posted on May 12, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10, Windows Phones with 0 Comments

No, There Was Nothing Controversial About Wi-Fi Sense

Buried in this week’s announcement about a new Windows 10 Insider Preview build was some surprising news: Microsoft is removing key Wi-Fi Sense functionality in the Anniversary Update. Called controversial by some, Wi-Fi Sense is nothing of the sort. But apparently so few people used it that Microsoft felt updating and supporting the feature was untenable.

Ah well.

Here’s how we describe Wi-Fi Sense in the Windows 10 Field Guide:

Windows 10 includes a misunderstood feature called Wi-Fi Sense. It’s designed to make Wi-Fi networking simpler in two ways: It lets you automatically connect to over one million free Wi-Fi hotspots around the world, and it can be configured to share your personal Wi-Fi credentials securely with your contacts, so they can automatically sign-in to and use your home network without any passwords changing hands.

Wi-Fi Sense is misunderstood because some people believe it to be a privacy and security issue. It is neither. But because Microsoft enables this feature automatically when you set up Windows 10 using Express Setup, there are fears that people don’t know what they’re getting into.

In the book we go on to explain how to find and configure Wi-Fi Sense, but that will of course have to be rewritten as part of our massive coming Anniversary Edition update. For now, let’s just recap the sad, misunderstood history of Wi-Fi Sense in Windows 10.

Wi-Fi Sense actually debuted in Windows Phone OS, and while that system is unfairly maligned because of low sales, many people would be shocked to discover just how much Windows 10 functionality actually shipped first on phones. (They shouldn’t be: Terry Myerson ran Windows phone before he ran Windows.) I’ve written a lot about Wi-Fi Sense on phones, with Windows Phone Tip: Automatically Connect to Public Hotspots with Wi-Fi Sense being an obvious example.

Of course, that article highlights the least controversial Wi-Fi Sense feature. What really has (or had) people freaked out is that Wi-Fi Sense could be configured—was in fact configured by default—to provide your “friends” with access to your protected home Wi-Fi network.

This feature, alas, was completely misunderstood. As I explained in Windows 10 Privacy Concerns Are Overblown, But Perception Matters, Wi-Fi Sense doesn’t actually share your protected Wi-Fi passwords with your friends. “It allows you to determine whether you want to share Wi-Fi login information with your contacts the first time you sign-in to that network only,” I wrote. “You have to opt-in, and you can determine which friends from which accounts receive this information. They must be using Windows 10 (or Windows Phone 8.1). And the actual passwords are never in fact given to your friends; their devices just sign-in automatically.”

But Microsoft said this week that it was removing the Wi-Fi Sense feature that allows you to share Wi-Fi networks with your contacts and to be automatically connected to networks shared by your contacts. In other words, only half of the Wi-Fi Sense functionality is being removed: So you’ll still be able to automatically connect to over one million free Wi-Fi hotspots around the world using Windows 10.

But why is it killing the ability to share protected Wi-Fi credentials?

“The cost of updating the code to keep this feature working combined with low usage and low demand made this not worth further investment,” Gabe Aul explained.

So there you go. A great feature, rarely used, and widely misunderstood. And now its gone. (Or, soon will be, if you’re on the public release track.) That’s too bad: Wi-Fi Sense was well-intentioned, something designed to remove a common bit of drudgery where we need to help our friends figure out how to get online when they visit. There are other solutions, of course—cellular networking, wireless access points with a separate public network—and maybe that contributed to this. But I have to think that the FUD surrounding Windows 10 played a role too.

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