The Challenges of Soft AP: What Goes Wrong and Why

Published by Barbara Nelson June 06, 2017

Billions of browserless Wi-Fi products are shipped every year, and many force users to use Wi-Fi Soft AP to get the products connected to the internet.  soft AP has fundamental problems that make it difficult for users and prevent mainstream adoption of connected products.

Wi-Fi Soft AP Overiew

Soft AP is an abbreviation for software enabled access point, also known as a virtual router.  Manufacturers often use Soft AP to let users configure their Wi-Fi network names and passwords into headless products. 

The product uses its Wi-Fi radio to create a temporary access point for the sole purpose of getting the network name and password for the user’s private network.  The end user then connects their smartphone to the temporary access point, and then uses a smartphone app to enter the private Wi-Fi network name and password into the app. The app then sends the network name and password to the connected product over the soft AP network. 

This has been the go-to solution for Wi-Fi onboarding, but it has substantial problems that not only frustrate users, but slow the adoption of connected products across the industry.

Phones fall off Soft AP networks

This temporary access point doesn’t allow data to flow through to the internet (it’s only intended to get private network credentials to the connected product), so the phone’s network checking logic may decide to move to a different network.  Suddenly, the user’s mobile app can no longer reach the connected product, so the connected product can’t get the Wi-Fi credentials.  This is a critical user-impacting issue and product companies have no control over whether this happens -- it’s determined by the specific phone model and operating system, of which there are many.  Testing a few phones in the office is not enough for a product company to be confident that the soft AP Wi-Fi onboarding will work reliably.  

iOS User Confusion

On iOS, mobile apps cannot move the phone from one network to another, so user intervention is required. The user needs to leave the app, go to settings, and then join the Soft AP network (which often has a confusing name). Then the user has to come back to the app and continue the process.  Doing these steps from memory may be OK for early adopters, but mainstream users don’t read instructions and definitely don’t remember a 5-step process.

In addition, the entire process can be counterintuitive for mainstream users: “My phone is already connected to the internet and I went back to the app but it didn’t work.  Why?”  “What is this strange network name -- is it a security issue for me to join it?” 

Wi-Fi Soft AP onboarding on iOS is a very problematic process for mainstream users.  We would show you the videos of our usability testing but it would be embarrassing for the users and our customers!

Disappearing Soft AP Network

Soft AP networks are a security concern (the connected product is allowing unauthenticated access), so connected products usually don’t keep the soft AP network up for very long. If the user is slow to enter the credentials, the soft AP network may vanish before the credentials have made it over to the connected product.  When the soft AP network vanishes, the phone will reconnect to whatever network it was on earlier, and you can’t talk to the connected product anymore. The app will display an error (which the user may misinterpret as being a problem with the Wi-Fi credentials) and the user has to turn the product off and on again, or maybe press a button on the product, to make it bring back up its soft AP network.  Again, all of this is confusing for mainstream users and adds friction into the onboarding process.

Soft AP Network Up Too Long

Some connected products leave the Soft AP network up for too long.  The user may successfully send the private network credentials to the product, and the product joins the private network, but the user’s phone is left on the Soft AP network and can no longer reach the internet. The phone will appear to be offline, and the user needs to figure out that they have to go back into Settings and put their phone back on a better network before they can resume normal activity on their phone.

“Google, why am I not connected to Wi-Fi?”

When users get stuck while doing any task, they have become accustomed to bringing up a browser and searching for online help.  If the phone is on the Soft AP network, you can’t search for help, because the phone can’t reach the internet. It’s stuck on a network that only goes to the connected product.  If the user isn’t a savvy network engineer, it may take them quite a while to figure out what’s going on.

The Impact of Soft AP Problems

Given all of these issues, it’s not surprising that in our testing, 20% of users failed when using Soft AP to connect their products to Wi-Fi.  According to Accenture, 33% of customers note ease of use is their #1 buying criteria, so figuring out Wi-Fi onboarding is crucial.

20% of users failing to connect their Smart Home devices to Wi-Fi can be devastating to a company’s bottom line. 20% of users have a terrible experience with the product, which leads to negative product reviews, product returns and higher support costs.  In fact, 40% of the negative reviews of connected products are the result of problems with setup and connectivity - many of these negative reviews are directly the result of Soft AP.

The Soft AP process ruins the out-of-box experience, makes for a terrible customer experience, reduces net promoter score, leads to scathing product reviews, and ultimately hits the bottom line with high returns, high support costs, and reduced sales. There are billions of browserless Wi-Fi products that are shipped per year today, and for that to double we need to give consumers an easier way to setup and connect Wi-Fi products.  Soft AP just won’t get us there.

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