A venerable network company is having another go at getting back into serious networking, with a wireless LAN product range. But with a shake-out in progress, it may turn out to be late - yet again.

Madge who?
Madge, founded in the 1980s by Robert Madge, is best known as the biggest (and only remaining) supporter of token ring, the IBM-defined networking standard that was slaughtered by Ethernet in the 1980s (if you really want to know more, Cisco has a worthwhile background on the subject).

Since then, Madge hasn't shone. Token ring lives on, in several large banks that are "sweating their assets", and Madge proudly boasts it is "the market leader in Token Ring". Somewhat incongruously, it also claims "Madge is pioneering next generation solutions, which enable the painless and secure deployment of Wireless LANs".

Late again?
The juxtaposition of all this was too much for our curiosity, so we met up with the chief executive, Martin Malina, for more details.

For the last six years, Madge's issue has been that token ring is profitable, but it isn't going anywhere. Eventually it will wither away, but those networks live on in conservative organisations such as banks.

So Madge has money to invest in new areas. In 1999, it attempted to get on the dotcom bandwagon with an ill-fated ASP (application service provider) business (if you don't remember ASPs, they were a brief craze of the late 1990s, which envisaged companies renting office, productivity and other applications remotely over the Internet). Madge.web failed to IPO before the dot-com-bomb of 2000, and was quietly wound up in 2001.

So what's next? Wireless. "We started in wireless two and a half years ago," he says. "We had a management buy-out in 2003, and £2 million of venture funding in August 2004. We are well positioned now."

It's a new meaning of the phrase "well-positioned". Everyone is agreed that there are too many wireless LAN companies out there, and the weaker brethren are biting the dust.

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Why would anyone say now is a good time to get into wireless LANs? Perhaps the product is so special it moves us on a generation.

Just another wireless gateway?
Unfortunately, the product description doesn't inspire awe. Madge has a wireless LAN control appliance that sounds so similar to those of ReefEdge and Bluesocket, that Malina has to assure me that it is not a badged product from another company.

These appliances are based on generic Linux boxes, which provide central control for access points from other vendors such as Cisco, D-Link and Proxim. It's a product type that is widely seen as old-fashioned compared with switch-based systems, which include thin access points, coming from the likes of Trapeze, Airespace and Aruba.

The market leader of the type, Bluesocket argues strongly that appliances have benefits over switches, and has recently brought out a security product to go with its WLAN manager. Madge's arguments sound very similar.

"We made an appliance, because it had to be multi-vendor," says Malina. "Customers should be able to mix and match. Thin access points are proprietary." Madge also has an IDS product, based on Red-Detect, from Red-M, a company that spun out of Madge.

Comparing Madge's efforts with the competition, its products are easier to use, claims Malina. "We have simplified the installation and focussed on the essential features for ease of deployment." (exactly the features we rate Bluesocket highly on in our review, in other words).

He claims to have better price performance, quoting a price of £2000 for a system that can manage up to 25 access points, and £3000 for an intrusion detection system. He also claims "better integration with the wired network," without quoting any specific features or examples, however.

Software only version
One difference from Bluesocket is Madge's offering of a software-only version of its product, which can be loaded on any generic Linux server. "Some large enterprises have standardised on certain platforms," explains Malina. "They will do anything to avoid bringing in other platforms."

It also could be an opportunity for some really cut-throat marketing, using the ease of distribution of software - a possibility that remains open.

Good channels?
Malina reckons Madge's channels and contacts give it a headstart on the start-ups (even though the start-ups beat it to market by a year or more). "All our token ring customers have started to use wireless," he says. "Most have mixed environments."

Like Bluesocket, Madge is counting heavily on the gaps in Cisco's wireless strategy, and on efficient marketin: "Cisco does not have a complete wireless offering, and we have the elements to carve out a place for ourselves." In this sort of world, he says, experience and contacts count for a lot.

The jury is out
Given Madge's history, we're not expecting great things. We plan to get the Madge box in to review, though. Perhaps we will be pleasantly surprised.