The Linux Wireless Extension and the Wireless Tools are an Open Source project sponsored by Hewlett Packard (through my contribution) since 1996, and build with the contribution of many Linux users all over the world.
The Wireless Extension (WE) is a generic API allowing a driver to expose to the user space configuration and statistics specific to common Wireless LANs. The beauty of it is that a single set of tool can support all the variations of Wireless LANs, regardless of their type (as long as the driver support Wireless Extension). Another advantage is these parameters may be changed on the fly without restarting the driver (or Linux).
The Wireless Tools (WT) is a set of tools allowing to manipulate the Wireless Extensions. They use a textual interface and are rather crude, but aim to support the full Wireless Extension. There are many other tools you can use with Wireless Extensions, however Wireless Tools is the reference implementation.
* iwconfig manipulate the basic wireless parameters
* iwlist allow to initiate scanning and list frequencies, bit-rates, encryption keys...
* iwspy allow to get per node link quality
* iwpriv allow to manipulate the Wireless Extensions specific to a driver (private)
* ifrename allow to name interfaces based on various static criteria
Most Linux distributions also have integrated Wireless Extensions support in their networking initialisation scripts, for easier boot-time configuration of wireless interfaces. They also include Wireless Tools as part of their standard packages.
Wireless configuration can also be done using the Hotplug or uDev scripts and distribution specific support, this enable the proper support of any removable wireless interface (Pcmcia, CardBus, USB...).
Any versions of the Pcmcia package offer the possibility to do wireless configuration of Pcmcia and Cardbus card through thefile wireless.opts. This allow to fully integrate wireless settings in the Pcmcia scheme mechansism. However, this method is now deprecated in favor of distribution specific methods.
Please note that the Wireless Tools (starting with version 19) supports fully IEEE 802.11 parameters and devices, support older style of devices and most proprietary protocols, and are prepared to handle HiperLan as well. More recent versions of course adds more 802.11 support.
But, unfortunately not all drivers support all these features...