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Strung out on wireless

Can wireless technology really help you find your way out of a blizzard?

So far, this has been regarded as a rough winter. It’s actually closer to normal, whatever that means. It’s rough enough if you’re caught traversing a freeway in near-whiteout conditions. That’s when the combination of snow and wind make it impossible to see beyond the length of your headlights, even in the day. It’s also when a palm-sized computer and its antenna fail to make a permanent connection with the Internet. My friend Doug flipped the cover back over his machine in disgust. “All I wanted was a weather update,” he said. After a moment I said, “You can see the weather; it’s right out there. What I can’t see is other cars, and for that a weather update means nothing.”

Five days before Christmas, computer stocks are taking yet another bath. Yesterday Nasdaq was down another 7 percent from the day before. Seldom has an industry so conspicuously needed something to pull it out of a dizzying downward spin: some good news, some burgeoning technology with potential so great that it can’t be denied.

As the dot-com Web sites go dark all over the Net and e-commerce hit its angst-filled adolescence, wireless seems to have been cast in the role of savior. Fortunately wireless is many things. It describes a convergence of communications and computer industries, most specifically telephones and Internet computing. These areas of technology are broadly defined so that wireless encompasses many products and thereby can power an industry in many ways. Unfortunately, there’s considerable confusion surrounding wireless; when somebody talks about the wireless revolution, what exactly do they mean?

There’s telephone communications, which started with cell phones and now (as most people move into digital devices) is simply known as wireless telephone. Some computers, like the one Doug was using, are capable of receiving wireless-network transmissions. These come in all shapes and sizes. And then there are the new half-breeds, telephone devices that also act as computers–possibly the ultimate convergence.

It seems like Americans are embracing wireless telephones big-time. But we have some catching up to do. Recently I visited the city of Tallinn. Where? That’s the capital of Estonia, just south of Helsinki, Finland–Nokia country for sure–and it seemed like the streets were filled with people using digital phones. The observation turns out to be true; Estonia has the highest percentage of wireless phone users in the world. The United States is barely in the top 10.

I mentioned this to Doug. His reaction was a lot like mine: “Huh?” Given that we’re an affluent nation of gadget junkies, how is that we’re not absolutely numero uno in wireless, like we are in almost everything else digital? In general, we seem to be plagued with the worst hindrances to acceptance of wireless: competing standards, low bandwidth, lack of security, uneven coverage, and, to some extent, cost.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has been developing specifications for high-speed wireless devices (often called third-generation, or 3G); but it has adoption problems because the major players want their own standards to be part of the standard. Just as with the competing current (second-generation) approaches, several manufacturers are content to stick with their proprietary technology to squeeze money from the first adopters–those who don’t care much about price. This is generally called short-term profit motive; others call it greed.

Lack of security in wireless is notorious, and it makes business in particular worry about adopting wireless. Of course, there are schemes for overcoming the security problems, but they have two immediate drawbacks: There is no standard, and they tend to degrade already slow performance.

America is a big country with wide-open spaces where nobody wants to (or can afford to) install a complete set of wireless services. This problem encompasses entire states. Large metropolitan areas generally can get many services, although even here the coverage can be spotty. Roving communication is supported but expensive. The need to verify actual coverage in geographical areas is a barrier for businesses, and a major caveat for consumers.

So far I’ve been writing about wireless phones. The other shoe that needs to drop is wireless computing, with or without the Internet. Here all the things that bedevil wireless phones–lack of standards, spotty coverage, technical barriers, corporate greed, and manifest stupidity–pertain in spades.

This past holiday season, all the big digital phone manufacturers pushed wireless phones with Internet capacity. If you read any of the trade press (or COMPUTERUSER, for that matter) you’ve certainly seen a lot about the advantages and importance of wireless Internet. It’s convergence, it’s the new economy; it’s modern life at the leading edge. It’s still mostly hype.

Of course, you can receive e-mail via your phone set. Reading a 20-character line can be tedious, especially for that corporate white paper your boss calls a memo. And I suspect that for creating and answering e-mail using a phone set, the mode will be terse and the vocabulary monosyllabic. So there are limitations. I have trouble imagining how companies can actually brag about transmitting movies to a phone set.

The current drive among manufacturers, especially the software companies, is to provide applications for wireless devices. Obviously, a killer application would go a long way toward launching wireless computing. Trouble is, even if we had a killer app, it probably wouldn’t run on most wireless devices. There is an evolving standard, Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) but it is so fraught with conflicts and immaturity that it makes the wireless phone standards look positively monolithic. The lack of standards means manufacturers and service providers currently have to make choices about which version of wireless technology they support–and of course, if they make a bad choice, they and the consumer gets stuck.

As with the dot-com Web sites offering groceries, cars, or furniture, you have to wonder if some of the touted uses of a Web phone are appropriate. The thing that sticks in my mind is the assumption that factoids delivered by phone are going to be very helpful–or more to the point, worth the cost.

“Doug, when you’re shopping downtown and want to go to a restaurant for dinner, how would you choose where to go?”

“Depends on what I’m in the mood for: Type of food; type of atmosphere; price.” I said, “So if you press a button on your phone and it shows you two restaurants in the block where you’re located, will that be useful?”

“Might be,” said Doug.

“Exactly,” I said. “Location may be one of the least important factors compared to the type of food you want or the quality of the restaurant. That’s information that takes quite a bit of space to convey, especially if you want to compare-not something a phone display is going to handle very well.”

That’s when the debate started. Eventually, it came down to Doug saying, “So why didn’t you badmouth the PC Revolution, too?” The implication was that I and a lot of other pooh-poohing pundits are negative out of habit rather than insight. “In this case, I’m not alone in having this gut feeling that wireless is different from the PC, both in terms of technology and its impact on the world. It’s going to take a lot longer for the real advantages to show up.”

I looked ahead into the storm for a moment. “Maybe the reason Americans haven’t jumped on the wireless bandwagon like other countries,” I said, “is that we’re already so loaded with digital gadgets that we’re a lot more selective and jaded. We want something that really demonstrates value-not more confusion, disappointment, and cost. Maybe all the screw-ups by corporations are just serving to make us feel like waiting. A healthy thing, I think.”

It’s hard to hold a conversation like this when staring down a tunnel of white and wondering when the back end of a stalled semi will suddenly loom into view. I guess I can lean a bit on the analogy and say it’s a lot like peering into the future of wireless. We’ll probably get where we want to go, though along the way we could have a terrible accident, or at least some near-misses. I guess the important thing is to understand the circumstances, be patient, and look sharp.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Enterprise Pursuits on ComputerUser.com, a weekly column discussing enterprise-level technology integration.

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