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Wireless caution signs

Plus, I can give up on my quest to make a better search engine.

“Hi. I’m on the bus. We’re at 90th right now. I should be home about 6:30. Pop in a couple of Lean Cuisines about 6:25. Love you. Bye.” Such are the conversations on my bus buzzing around my head as I try to get some research done. They’re not really conversations–more like status reports on the road of life, as Garrison Keillor says. But because of cell phones, everyone knows where everyone else is. Lateness is almost non-existent, unless you’re one of the few people without a plan, like me.

That’s right. The editor of COMPUTERUSER magazine doesn’t have a cell phone plan. I’ve been holding out for a variety of reasons. I’m kind of a fuddy-duddy about the culture of communication. When I talk with my wife, I want to have meaningful conversations. Not that you can’t have meaningful conversations on a cell phone. But people save the important stuff for face to face and use the cell phone for mundane stuff. A quick “Hello, I love you” over the cell phone has roughly the impact of a smiley on e-mail. It’s nice, but does it really mean as much as it would if the message were delivered while looking into her eyes?

Despite my old-fashioned attitudes about communication, I do want to get a cell plan that works for my family. I’ve been testing phones for years and I’m still dragging my feet. For the longest time, I lived in a neighborhood where we couldn’t get service. Even though it was in the geographic center of 13th largest market in the country, our city council didn’t want cell towers spoiling the natural splendors of power lines and water towers. So, I couldn’t get service at home if I wanted to, which removed a major incentive to have a plan in the first place–cheap or free long distance.

I recently moved to a town that encourages cell phone tower construction, so I no longer have an excuse not to join the cellerati. Now the only thing that stands in my way is my tendency to research decisions until it no longer makes sense to buy the things I’m researching. Most people choose plans based on free minutes and plan pricing. Sometimes they choose a carrier based on the phones offered and quality of service in their areas. These things are important to me too. But I’m pickier about the plan than the average person. I want a service that works with a solid PDA/phone hybrid, one that allows me to check e-mail and communicate via instant messaging, play tunes, check weather, and perhaps even navigate via GPS. And I want a company that uses the technology that will eventually win.

The trouble is, no wireless carrier satisfies all of my needs. Free minutes and plan pricing change faster than air fares. And new phones are coming out all the time, so I’ll wait to review that information until the harder decisions are made. As for the PDA/phone hybrid, I commissioned a feature that compares the three best such models for this issue. Of the three models we review, I favor the Handspring Treo 300, which does most of the things I’m looking for in such a device, but costs more than having a separate phone and PDA that do everything I need. I’m tempted to just get a Dell Axim–which we review in this issue–and a phone with a PDA hook-up instead. The jury’s still out.

As for the standards, I asked Associate Editor Elizabeth Millard to write a feature exploring the present state of digital wireless standards for this issue. The situation is still muddled, but if I were a betting man, I would say the GSM/GPRS/3GSM/EDGE (think T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T) camp will win the race in the long run. Plus my own tests indicate that CDMA/CDMA2000 (think Sprint) are not as reliable and have a smaller footprint than the competition. Of all the carriers, T-Mobile has the most diverse set of offerings and the largest supported device list. If I can get decent prices on service and phones, I’ll probably go that route.

But you won’t catch me calling home from the bus and giving my GPS coordinates.

Regular readers know I have an obsession to build a better search engine almost as strong as my grandfather’s obsession to build a better mouse trap. I’ve talked with some of the leading researchers in this field–sometimes called the Semantic Web–and developed a strong initial model of one such search engine. But, the complexity of language and the complementary theory–Relevance Theory–makes global climate work seem tame by comparison. So it’s on the back burner.

After my conversation with Apostolos Gerasoulis, vice president of research and development for Teoma–the search engine behind Ask Jeeves and others–my plan to build a better search engine can stay on the back burner. Though the casual reader might not draw that conclusion based on my Q&A in this issue with Apostolos, I’ll make it clearer below.

When I started studying Relevance Theory in graduate school, I was certain it wouldn’t work. Language is too tied to the patchwork of cultural contexts to fit into a cross-cultural theory. That was the conclusion of my unfinished Ph.D. work on Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. (Though not influential enough. Poll: how many readers know of him or his work?) But as I studied Relevance, it gradually overcame all of Wittgenstein’s cultural objections at the price of being so complex, its computer model would take years to compute on the fastest super computer in the world. So my new tenet is: No unified cross-cultural theory of human language is computational.

Now that that’s crystal clear, here’s why Teoma works like no other search engine. It takes advantage of the cultures in which different uses of the same words have different meanings. If you type in “Apple,” it will give you four or five communities that use that word: “Apple Computers,” “Apple Records,” “Apple Orchard Societies,” etc. Once you go to the sites using the search terms in your community, you can zero in on the best sites for your query. And since no other medium is as community-focused as the Web, Teoma takes advantage of the strengths of the medium to deliver results faster and easier for users. I expect its use to grow, which will feed the engine with fresh community contexts, making it the ultimate search engine within the next few years.

One day my grandfather accidentally found a mouse trap that worked without fail–he spilled lye on the floor–and his obsession ended as quickly as mine did. Why build a better search engine when the best one is already available?

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