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The next Information Age

Wireless technology could be the next 'boom'

By Greg Botelho

hands-free headset
More devices are becoming not only wireless but hands-free, as with this Bluetooth headset built by Motorola.

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(CNN) -- In the 19th century, the invention of the telegraph and the telephone forever changed how messages moved around the world. In the 20th century, radio, television, computers and the Internet further revolutionized the near-instantaneous processing and transmission of data.

Experts say the 21st century will usher in a second Information Age in which these technologies, and their benefits, will be accessible anytime, anywhere.

Linking it all together? An absence of wires.

Every month, it seems, a new cell phone comes out that's "smarter" than the last in its ability to gather and transmit a growing amount of data: voice, images, news and more.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade association working with "wireless-fidelity" technologies, says laptop computer and personal digital assistant (PDA) users can now sit down and instantly sync up on the Internet at tens of thousands of "hotspots" in homes, cafes and other high-traffic areas nationwide.

Soon, pundits predict, many more consumer electronics -- from computers to stereos to coffee makers -- could electronically connect with one another, as well as with thermostats, watches and other digital devices.

"Everyone is going to be able to tap into this pervasive wireless world," said Wade Roush, senior editor of Technology Review, pointing to rapidly improving technology and falling prices. "[Wireless technologies] are going to change the way we communicate with each other."

Those connected with the wireless world say these technologies are in their infancy. Even though sales of Wi-Fi units have doubled annually in recent years, Wi-Fi Alliance Chairman Dennis Eaton says the technologies may just be beginning a significant growth spurt.

Telecommunications companies, meanwhile, are hyping a significant mobile network upgrade -- dubbed 3G, or "Third Generation" -- that will let cell phones and other such devices transmit more data, and do it faster than ever before.

"Think of the Internet, back in 1995-1996," said Norm Rose, head of Travel Technology Consulting. "Wireless and mobile technology is the next boom. When it takes off, it will be even more disruptive than the Internet.

"It's going to be an exciting couple of years."

Quantum leap

Cell phones, or at least the technology behind them, have been around since the 1960s. By the 1980s, mobile phones had evolved but were still "giant, brick-shaped ... luxury items for geeks or the rich," Roush said.

In the 1990s, cell phones and laptops became less bulky and less expensive, new gadgets like PDAs helped people better manage their lives electronically, and a growing number of other devices -- from kitchen appliances to televisions -- began incorporating digital technology.

A Starbucks customer takes advantage of one of the coffeehouse chain's 2,600 Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Internet also played a large role in shaping the wireless world, changing not only how businesses worked but also how information was shared. It also showed the need -- and difficulty -- of improving electronic devices and networks, then marrying the two, Rose said.

Even with the tremendous technological improvements in cell phones -- sending images, text messages and, of course, sound -- Rose said such upgrades become moot if mobile users cannot always get a clear connection because of an imperfect network.

The scenario parallels the early days of the Internet, when slow hook-ups made it hard to fully utilize the new technology, Rose said.

Wi-Fi is helping fill the network void. An offshoot of research into wirelessly connecting cash registers, Wi-Fi allows those with the technology (built into their device or channeled via a network card adapter) and within reach of a "base station" to connect to the Internet without having to plug the device into a wall.

Another wireless technology, Bluetooth, allows such devices as digital cameras, printers, keyboards and other computer peripherals to connect over short distances.

Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies work under the same general concept, the differentiating factors typically being the speed and distance a user can move from the base station and still maintain the connection.

Wi-Fi has taken off since 1999, when a new standard let users connect wirelessly to the Internet much faster than ever before, Eaton said. The prices of Wi-Fi base stations and adapters (now about $200 and $30, respectively), as well as broadband hook-ups (for optimum connection speed), dropped steeply in recent years, and more than half of all laptops on the market now have Wi-Fi capability built in, he added.

Meanwhile, the number of "hotspots" -- places, including laundries, doctor's offices, even open spaces like Bryant Park in New York City, where people can sit within reach of a Wi-Fi base station and hook up to the Internet -- has soared.

The vast majority of Wi-Fi zones are in residences, where people set up a base station and typically can log on from anywhere in the house.

Treo 600
Handspring's Treo 600, a Palm OS organizer, has a camera, cell phone, MP3 player and wireless applications.

The phenomenon also has had widening commercial use, perhaps most visibly at Starbucks, which says it has 2,600 "hotspots" in its coffeehouses nationwide. The Web site lists more than 6,000 such commercial zones in 44 countries.

The wireless future

Europe and Asia have long been ahead of the United States in wireless innovations. The Japanese adopted picture phones -- the latest American cell phone craze -- years ago and now are sharing advanced multimedia messages (like video), on more-efficient networks, and are using mobile phones and PDAs with better interfaces.

"Smartphones" -- cell phones that gather and display information beyond simply sound -- have garnered much of the buzz domestically. A new wave of better, faster phones will hit the United States only after 3G or other such networks become a reality, Rose said.

Wi-Fi is also developing at a "steady, strong" pace, said Eaton, and in ways that its inventors never intended. Engineers are working to incorporate Wi-Fi into cell phones, PDAs and other such devices that can shift seamlessly from a Wi-Fi to a 3G or other network.

"You will be able to go down to the store and buy almost any piece of consumer electronics, plug it into your wall, it'll sense your Wi-Fi network and automatically configure itself," Eaton said. "It's going to be one of those technologies that weaves into all facets of our lives."

Rose said people will soon be able to get any information they need, wherever they are -- even when, as in the case of last-minute unforeseen schedule changes or the appearance of a tasty restaurant nearby, they didn't know they needed it.

"We'll start to think of computing as a natural part of our environment in the same way we might think about heating and air conditioning now," Roush said. "It's just always there."

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