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From the editor

Commentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
November 2000, issue 36

Believe it or not, but it looks like this is the year where wireless communication is finally starting to take off. You've heard this before, of course, and more than once. In fact, pretty much each of the past several years was supposed to be the year of wireless communication.

In 1994, for example, Motorola introduced the Envoy, a nifty handheld device with an ARDIS packet-switched radio, and called it a "PIC" which stood for Personal Intelligent Communicator. It used the friendly Magic Cap operating system, and General Magic talked about little kids walking around with Envoys getting "post cards" from their pals. The Envoy was remarkable device, but—alas—it was several years ahead of its time. Its failure was a combination of factors: high price, spotty service, and a public not quite ready yet for a handheld without a keyboard.

Before the Envoy there was the EO, a device built around the brilliantly conceived PenPoint operating system. Some EOs came with integrated cellphones, and that was quite remarkable for 1993. The EO was thus a wireless communication device. Unfortunately, it was also positively huge by today's standards, and its full-size telephone handset alone probably weighed more than two Palm VIIs. AT&T became the subject of much ridicule for its EO "Fax on the Beach" commercials. Back then it was far-fetched to imagine someone taking a portable computer to the beach to do work, much less one equipped with wireless communications capabilities. Turns out that AT&T was right after all. You can fax on the beach today, and it's no big deal.

A few years later we saw several handhelds equipped with CDPD radio modems. None were a commercial success. The only thing wireless that really worked were industry-specific business solutions from the likes of Symbol, Telxon, Norand, and some of the other vertical market leaders.

So what makes me think that wireless is making its move after so much hype and so many false starts? It's not as if we all of a sudden had some magic new wireless technology at our disposal. We're basically still dealing with the same old networks, the same old fragmentation, and the same multitude of incompatible standards and protocols that have left the United States well behind Europe and Japan, and a good number other industrialized (and even some not so industrialized) nations.

While it's true that CDPD service has been built up faster than some experts expected, many wireless devices still use the same old ARDIS and RAM packet-switched networks that were here well before the Envoy and the EO. They now have different names and owners (ARDIS first became American Mobile, then Motient, and RAM Mobile Data is now known as the BellSouth Intelligent Wireless Network), but the services are basically the same. CDPD, likewise, hasn't changed. We're talking low bandwidth and low speed communication here. Nothing even close to a 56k wired modem. The same goes for the circuit-switched GSM and CDMA data systems. We've also seen some spectacular failures, like the much ballyhooed worldwide Iridium satellite network that was shut down earlier this year. The networks and their technologies are really not the reason for all this new attention.

The real reason is that we're starting to see intelligent use of wireless service. Vendors have finally realized that web browsing on a notebook computer with a 19.2kbps wireless modem is not a pleasant experience. As a result, we're now seeing solutions that were built with the strengths and limitations of wireless in mind. The Palm VII demonstrated that you can not only have wireless email in a very small device but also get meaningful data from the web through Palm's clipping technology. RIM's interactive pagers quietly built a significant following pretty much through word of mouth. How can you argue with an email device that is always ready to send and receive messages, yet can still go for as long as a full month on a single charge? Wireless web access, once an exercise in frustration, is made possible in a number of ways. Many large site offer special text-based and condensed versions of their content. A growing number of back end services condense standard web pages on the fly and reformat them for display on small handhelds. Yet others have arrangements with a number of websites and offer their content, reformatted, through their web portals. A great example of such a service is OmniSky.

Accessing these services does not require a desktop browser like Internet Explorer or Netscape. A new generation of largely text-based micro-browsers make web access possible even on the tiny screens of a new generation of Internet phones. "WAP" (Wireless Application Protocol) has become quite a buzz word. WAP devices require content to be coded in special languages such as HDML (Handheld Device Markup Language) or WML (Wireless Markup Language). As the bandwidth of wireless networks grows, we will undoubtedly see larger screens, graphics, and even animation.

The point, though, is that wireless is taking off because the service providers have learned to live within its constraints. Consumers are now getting real value from services that are actually useful. And this goes well beyond the stock quotes or weather reports paging systems have been able to send to their subscribers for years. We're talking real two-way interaction with web-based services through handhelds and WAP phones.

I recently attended DEMOmobile 2000 in Pasadena. The show, produced by IDG Executive Services (, is a terrific place to learn about the hottest developments and trends in the mobile and wireless space. It confirmed what I had already seen at last June's PC Expo in New York: PCs and notebooks are boring. So they have a faster processor and a bigger disk than last year. Who cares? Today it's all about mobile devices, wireless communication, new services, enterprise integration, and, of course, the web. There are hundreds of startups with great new ideas of how we can increase our productivity and make better use of our time by building a worldwide wireless community where you're always connected. The demos I saw at DEMOmobile showed that many of those services and ideas are totally feasible and can work with today's Palms, Pocket PCs, RIMs, and WAP phones. I saw digital cameras that snap onto cellphones to transmit pictures to a special imaging portal where you can enhance the pictures and send them to your friends and relatives. Palms can be used to buy and pay for tickets online, and the ticket is then transferred to the Palm for redemption at special "Internet Fastlanes." Read about it on my report on DEMOmobile on page 38.

I should also mention that the handheld device of choice for most of these new services is the Palm. That's partially due to the sheer number of Palms out there, and partially because despite its brilliant simplicity, the Palm OS has proven to be remarkably versatile. There is also growing support for the RIM platform That's likely because all RIM devices are wireless already, so developers don't need to worry about different wireless services or modems. Just about everybody seems to support WAP these days, to the extent where Psion's upgrade of its Revo handheld now contains a WAP browser in addition to a more elaborate "real" browser. Amazingly, wireless is one area where Microsoft lags behind. Pocket PC and Windows CE support usually comes after Palm, RIM, and WAP.

Despite all of these developments, we're not quite there yet. While those who carry a Palm VII, a RIM device, or an Internet enabled phone enjoy better and almost instant access to a growing number of services and resources wherever they are (as long as there's coverage, of course), the rest still need some sort of wireless connection for their handheld. That can be done via many cellphones, but I've never been fond of dial-up data services, especially when they go over voice networks that are designed to carry the maximum number of subscribers at the lowest transmission quality possible. Novatel Wireless, who makes the terrific Palm V cradle used by OmniSky, has been showing similar attachments for some of the Microsoft powered handhelds. Over the next twelve months we'll be seeing some interesting new wireless hardware solutions.

The emergence of wireless access is a good thing as good old-fashioned modem connections are becoming more and more of a pain. It's become almost impossible to get a reliable connection on the first try. In addition, it puzzles me that current Pocket PCs do not have internal modems. Older CE devices and palm-size PCs had internal modems and RJ-11 jacks. Where did they go? I really resent having to use a cradle, a bulky CF Card modem, or be plain out of luck as I am with my (otherwise wonderful) Compaq iPAQ because I cannot find an expansion sleeve anywhere.

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and general editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at

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