There are two sides to Wi-Fi support under an operating system: driver level support, and configuration and management support.
Driver support is usually provided by the manufacturer of the hardware or, in the case of Unix clones such as Linux and FreeBSD, sometimes through open source projects.
Configuration and management support consists of software to enumerate, join, and check the status of available Wi-Fi networks. This also includes support for various encryption methods. These systems are often provided by the operating system backed by a standard driver model. In most cases, drivers emulate an ethernet device and use the configuration and management utilities built into the operating system. In cases where built in configuration and management support is non-existent or inadequate, hardware manufacturers may include their own software to handle the respective tasks.
Microsoft Windows has comprehensive driver-level support for Wi-Fi, the quality of which depends on the hardware manufacturer. Hardware manufactures almost always ship Windows drivers with their products. Windows ships with very few Wi-Fi drivers and depends on the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)and device manufacturers to make sure users get drivers. Configuration and management depend on the version of Windows.
Earlier versions of Windows, such as 98, ME and 2000 do not have built-in configuration and management support and must depend on software provided by the manufacturer
Microsoft Windows XP has built-in configuration and management support. The original shipping version of Windows XP included rudimentary support which was dramatically improved in Service Pack 2. Support for WPA2 and some other security protocols require updates from Microsoft. There are still problems with XP support of Wi-Fi. (One simple interface problem is that if the user makes a mistake in the (case sensitive) passphrase, XP keeps trying to connect but never tells the user that the passphrase is wrong.) To make up for Windows’ inconsistent and sometimes inadequate configuration and management support, many hardware manufacturers include their own software and require the user to disable Windows’ built-in Wi-Fi support. See article "Windows XP Bedevils Wi-Fi Users" in Wired News.
Microsoft Windows Vista has improved Wi-Fi support over Windows XP. The original betas automatically connected to unsecured networks without the user’s approval. This is a large security issue for the owner of the respective unsecured access point and for the owner of the Windows Vista based computer because shared folders may be open to public access. The release candidate (RC1 or RC2) does not continue to display this behavior, requiring user permissions to connect to an unsecured network, as long as the user account is in the default configuration with regards to User Account Control.
Apple Mac OS
Apple was an early adopter of Wi-Fi, introducing its AirPort product line, based on the 802.11b standard, in July 1999. Apple then introduced AirPort Extreme as an implementation of 802.11g. All Macs starting with the original iBook included AirPort slots for which an AirPort card can be used, connecting to the computer's internal antenna. All Intel-based Macs either come with built-in Airport Extreme or a slot for an AirPort card. In late 2006, Apple began shipping Macs with Broadcom Wi-Fi chips that also supported the Draft 802.11n standard which can be unlocked through buying a $2 driver released by Apple at the January 2007 Macworld Expo. The driver is also included for free with Apple's 802.11n AirPort Extreme.
Apple makes the Mac OS operating system, the computer hardware, the accompanying drivers, AirPort WiFi base stations, and configuration and management software, simplifying Wi-Fi integration. The built-in configuration and management is integrated throughout many of the operating system's applications and utilities. Mac OS X has Wi-Fi support, including WPA2, and ships with drivers for Apple’s Broadcom-based AirPort cards. Many third-party manufacturers make compatible hardware along with the appropriate drivers which work with Mac OS X’s built-in configuration and management software. Other manufacturers distribute their own software.
Apple's older Mac OS 9 does not have built in support for Wi-Fi configuration and management nor does it ship with Wi-Fi drivers, but Apple provides free drivers and configuration and management software for their AirPort cards for OS 9, as do a few other manufacturers. Versions of Mac OS before OS 9 predate Wi-Fi and do not have any Wi-Fi support, although some third-party hardware manufacturers have made drivers and connection software that allows earlier OSes to use Wi-Fi.
Open source Unix-like systems
Linux, FreeBSD and similar Unix-like clones have much coarser support for Wi-Fi. Due to the open source nature of these operating systems, many different standards have been developed for configuring and managing Wi-Fi devices. The open source nature also fosters open source drivers which have enabled many third party and proprietary devices to work under these operating systems. See Comparison of Open Source Wireless Drivers for more information on those drivers.
Linux has patchy Wi-Fi support. Native drivers for many Wi-Fi chipsets are available either commercially or at no cost, although some manufacturers don't produce a Linux driver, only a Windows one. Consequently, many popular chipsets either don't have a native Linux driver at all, or only have a half-finished one. For these, the freely available NdisWrapper and its commercial competitor DriverLoader allow Windows x86 and 64 bit variants NDIS drivers to be used on x86-based Linux systems but not on other architectures. As well as the lack of native drivers, some Linux distributions do not offer a convenient user interface and configuring Wi-Fi on them can be a clumsy and complicated operation compared to configuring wired Ethernet drivers. This is changing with NetworkManager, a utility that allows users to automatically switch between networks without using the command line.
FreeBSD has Wi-Fi support similar to Linux. Support under FreeBSD is best in the 6.x versions, which introduced full support for WPA and WPA2, although in some cases this is driver dependent. FreeBSD comes with drivers for many wireless cards and chipsets, including those made by Atheros, Ralink, Cisco, D-link, Netgear, and many Centrino chipsets, and provides support for others through the ports collection. FreeBSD also has "Project Evil", which provides the ability to use Windows x86 NDIS drivers on x86-based FreeBSD systems as NdisWrapper does on Linux, and Windows amd64 NDIS drivers on amd64-based systems.
NetBSD, OpenBSD, and DragonFly BSD have Wi-Fi support similar to FreeBSD. Code for some of the drivers, as well as the kernel framework to support them, is mostly shared among the 4 BSDs.
Wi-Fi availability in the home is on the increase. This extension of the Internet into the home space will increasingly be used for remote monitoring. Examples of remote monitoring include security systems and tele-medicine. In all these kinds of implementation, if the Wi-Fi provision is provided using a system running one of operating systems mentioned above, then it becomes unfeasible due to weight, power consumption and cost issues.
Increasingly in the last few years (particularly as of early 2007), embedded Wi-Fi modules have become available which come with a real-time operating system and provide a simple means of wireless enabling any device which has and communicates via a serial port.
This allows simple monitoring devices, for example a portable ecg monitor hooked up to a patient in the home, to be created. This Wi-Fi enabled device effectively becomes part of the internet cloud and can communicate with any other node on the internet. The data collected can hop via the home's Wi-Fi access point to anywhere on the internet.
These Wi-Fi modules are designed so that minimal Wi-Fi knowledge is required by designers to wireless enable their product.