Cutting the cord: New devices allow continuous connectivity
by Seth Goldstein
(IDG) -- People who know me by e-mail alone imagine that I am a workaholic chained to my PC. I often respond to messages within a matter of minutes. But appearances can be deceiving. In truth, I spend less than a few hours a day in front of my computer.
For the last five months, I've been wearing a two-way pager, called the RIM 950, from BellSouth. This compact device, which comes complete with a tiny keyboard, allows me to send and receive e-mail wirelessly. Unlike most gadgets I buy and abandon quickly, this one offers utility that outstrips its novelty.
Although the majority of Internet users are relative newbies, a growing segment of mobile professionals and wired consumers has been online for more than two years. And they're the ones turning to palmtops, subnotebooks, handhelds and smart phones. The really interesting part of all this is that it indicates a seemingly tireless desire for constant electronic contact.
The executive who needs to be in continuous contact during an important business deal is also the mom picking up the kids, dealing with the baby-sitter and booking dinner reservations. Just as Web stores like Amazon.com need to be open around the clock, the flip-side is also true. Internet-era consumers need to be connected to a network 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A new industry is building products to sustain this trend toward continuous personal computing. Each innovative product, moreover, integrates the functionality of other products. The Palm Pilot synchronizes contacts and calendar features with cell phones. The RIM 950 two-way e-mail pager can also send faxes and voice-mail messages. This spring, Qualcomm's new pdQ cell phone will allow a person to click on a contact and automatically dial the number. The upcoming Palm Pilot VII will offer online stock trading through E-Trade and travel reservations through Travelocity.
The creators of the Pilot, Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky, have started a new company called Handspring. The company's first product is rumored to be targeted at helping travelers in foreign cities find local merchants, services and entertainment. Network computing takes the concept of telecommuting a step further.
It's the new model: cyborg chic. We're taking bits and pieces of the network with us – in our hands, on our belts, in our jacket pockets.
The line between geeky gadgetness and techno sophistication has never been more difficult to discern. Size matters. So, too, does sound. The Pilot is big enough to receive data, but small enough to carry on your person. The Philips Nino is a bit too bulky for a jacket pocket. The Rex would be perfect if only it made it easier to enter information. Alarms, beeps, rings are gauche. Vibration is key. Both my e-mail pager and my cell phone are set to buzz. How long will it be before the notification functions of these devices are embedded under my skin?
During the past year, several experiences have hinted at how these trends will play out. My friend Lance runs a venture-capital firm in Ohio. When he comes to New York for meetings, he carries a beautiful leather bag. One would never imagine that the bag contains two cell phones (Nokia 6160 and Nextel i1000), two wireless e-mail pagers (Motorola Skywriter and RIM 950) and two PDAs (Pilot and Rex).
In a recent meeting, he suggested we set up a conference call with another colleague in Ohio. Before I could get up from my seat and grab a conference phone, he had pulled the Nextel phone from his bag, set it on the table and flipped open the cover, exposing the two-way speakerphone, and declared that we were ready for our conference call.
Like the cell phone, the Pilot has transformed life for many of its users. Last July, I went with my coworkers to a hip downtown Manhattan Italian restaurant called Il Buco. We were celebrating the beta launch of a new service we developed called root.net, which was designed to help manage the personal logistics of busy, connected people.
We were just beginning our main course when I noticed two women and a guy seated at a table behind us. Pretty soon, all 10 people in our party had stopped eating and were watching the two women beam contacts back and forth using their Palm III organizers. Never mind the fact that many of us were still using the noninfrared Pilots.
We realized, right then, that the revolution in mobile computing was not about traveling salesmen or road warriors. It was about two friends out to dinner swapping notes. It was about sending e-mail from a taxi. It was about bringing the mountain to Mohammed.
Seth Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is entrepreneur in residence at Flatiron Partners, a New York venture-capital firm.
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