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Palm Column

Why wireless is slow to catch on

by Shawn Barnett
January 2002, issue 43

Manufacturers and analysts seem to agree: the Web will be accessed wirelessly in the near future, and handheld devices of some kind will be the conveyance. It's been predicted for a few years, and many devices have been made, yet most likely you're not carrying a wireless data device today. What's missing?

A regular user of a Palm VIIx and a Novatel Minstrel modem, I consider myself wirelessly-enabled; but I do know that there are many pieces missing from the puzzle to make wireless handhelds compelling.

One driver, split personality

First, we need to recognize that there is one driver of innovation in this industry, and that's the business consumer. They've been the early adopters of mobile technology even before the Palm was created, and it's with their needs in mind that most mobile products are designed. This camp can also be divided into two: There are the entrepreneurs and individual employees and executives who will buy their own personal productivity machines, and then there are the institutional IT departments that roll out integrated corporate solutions. Microsoft has wooed these latter folks into bed with CE and Pocket PC with the promise of easy adaptation of existing programs to their portable OS, not to mention talk of powerful processors, something that works to some extent on all of us; whereas the former individual business purchasers are largely attracted to the simplicity and comparative ubiquity of the Palm OS. Either way, both platforms are moving in the wireless direction, so both are relevant.

Because these machines are aimed at business people, they're bound to cost more money than most consumers can afford, so continue looking to the business sector to see wireless emerge. We've already seen the most compelling "killer app" that will sell future devices, combined with the tool that will seal the deal, emerge from this sector in the form of the RIM pager. It offers instant, mobile email (the killer app) with a simple keyboard (the tool) for easy composition of messages. All the larger-screened RIM 957 needs to move closer to the device we describe is Blazer-like Web access and a fast network to go with it. Color would help, but is not crucial.

Which brings up form factor next. I think most agree that the Palm-size form factor will be the more successful. Microsoft clearly thinks so, because they've basically abandoned their original clamshell design in favor of Palm-size. Of course now they've resurrected the tablet or slate design. I don't mock this; in fact, I understand it completely: small Palm-size computer screens are a large compromise when it comes to viewing web pages (email is more acceptable on small screens). I just don't think the Tablet PC model is ever going to be widely adopted. First, they're ungainly. It's an odd truth, because you'd think the idea of a large pad of paper would work as well as Palm's small pad of paper metaphor. But typical tablet PCs currently weigh ten to twenty times more than a legal pad, though we have yet to see what actual Microsoft Tablet PC manufacturers are capable of. They would undoubtedly be better tools to view web pages, though, so that's why they keep appearing.

It's amazing that the computer industry in the 1980s got us lugging huge Compaq computers the size of a large four-drawer toolbox, and weighing almost as much, in the name of portable computing-yet today a Tablet PC seems huge. One thing the Compaq had that neither a Tablet PC nor Palm has is a usable keyboard, and this is the reason notebook PCs are still the choice of travelling professionals. There are other reasons I think Tablet PCs or WebPads will not work as "wireless everywhere" solutions, like the fact that writing longhand text on a piece of glass doesn't feel natural, especially when most operating systems require you to hover over the screen rather than rest your hand on it like we do with paper. On a Palm you can rest part of your hand on the edge while you write your characters all in one area. Not ideal, but it still works a heck of a lot better.


The Web, whatever you think about it, is foremost an information delivery vehicle. And as such it has a lot of competition, especially when we're mobile. For news and information, radio offers a good solution that doesn't require all of our attention. Just listen for a little bit to a news channel in your car, and you'll get traffic, weather, and basic news all in the space of 15 minutes. News stands also offer all kinds of information in a form that requires no batteries and doesn't have to be booted; and if you drop it or lose it, it's not a big loss, because it's just paper. Television delivers such information wirelessly as well, with full motion video. But the one advantage the Web has is relative non-linearity, something that limits radio and television. It's more akin to a newspaper with its offer of many random stories to choose from; though with a newspaper it's all laid out before you, and with the Web, you really have to know where to go in advance.

Which brings us to content. Most web pages are still not easy to browse on a handheld device. While Blazer is fast and delivers the important text information first, its graphics come in pieces that just don't compare to viewing the same page on a full monitor. Pocket PCs do better at displaying most pages as they appear on a regular browser, but you too often can't read text without scrolling right and left over and again because of this problem of relative resolution. I even have this problem on my iBook with its 800 x 600 screen, because many Web designers are standardizing on 1024 x 768. This is a problem with standards. Web pages are designed to be viewed from the desktop, and until designers decide that the handheld browser will be a force to consider, a reasonable solution will be tough to find.


When users think of browsing the web on a handheld, they expect it to be just like their desktop, only in the palm of their hand. Looking at small parts of a complete web page is like viewing the Mona Lisa through a peep hole. And the alternative of having a Web page's graphics and text broken up in to columnar format is more like tearing the Mona Lisa up and mailing it from France in individual envelopes. Both methods get the message across, but they're nothing like standing in front of the original in the Louvre.

As for bandwidth, let's just say it's insufficient, though we keep hearing promises that more is coming. The low speed networks are great for die-hard tech lovers like myself who are pleased that it works at all, but for widespread adoption, more speed is needed.

Until most of the above issues are resolved, it looks like the cell phone will carry the banner of wireless data into the business world. Handspring's Treo 180 combines that RIM keyboard with the Blazer browser, email, and decent bandwidth; the compromise is the screen. Conrad (our Editor in Chief) and I agree that there's a size in-between Palm and tablet that just might work, seen in the Casio Fiva and Apple Newton. But the compelling feature of the cell phone model is that you're already taking it with you on a daily basis, making it the Trojan horse that wireless data may need to win the day. -

Shawn Barnett can be reached via email at

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