Why aren't more PDAs wireless?
by David Essex
(IDG) -- The large number of wireless data transmitters for personal digital assistants exhibited at last month's PC Expo in New York suggests that a new era of portability has arrived. But long-standing technical and market hurdles remain that are likely to make ubiquitous computing and Web access a dream slightly deferred, according to analysts and vendors.
Before last month's debut of 3Com's Palm VII wireless PDA, few manufacturers managed to squeeze cellular phone circuitry and antennas into normal-size PDAs. Most "wireless" PDA devices require a physical link to an actual cell phone for transmission -- even the Socket Communications Digital Phone Card for Windows CE devices, which garnered much of the attention at PC Expo. But that should change in the next 18 months as phone vendors such as Nokia and Qualcomm introduce cell phones on a chip, says Bruce Kasrel, senior analyst at Forrester Research.
Most wireless networks have their own proprietary standards, and no single network covers enough geographic areas to dominate. What's more, radio circuitry in the device will usually work only with one cellular standard, such as CDPD or GSM. So PDA makers typically pick one or two networks to support, then form partnerships with vendors of removable -- and thus interchangeable -- PC Card cellular modems, or with the network carriers themselves. It all adds up to a piecemeal setup that most consumers find cumbersome.
Knowing this, 3Com wanted to make the Palm VII networkable right out of the box, so it joined with Bell South's Intelligent Wireless Network, a decade-old radio (not cellular) network available in most U.S. metro areas, to create Palm.Net. The new network will have special servers and other infrastructure designed expressly to store and download personal and public information to the PDA.
"We designed the device and the service to be network independent," says Tammy Medanich, a 3Com product marketing manager; the company plans to support other cellular and wireless standards, she says. 3Com's strategy may point the way to an eventual solution to the wireless PDA puzzle.
"The network shouldn't have to make much difference," says Kasrel, pointing out that a so-called 3G (for third generation) standard is likely to unify cell-phone networks anyway by around 2002. The real challenge for PDA vendors and major wireless networks is to build the additional Palm.Net-like infrastructure to deliver content that people want to read on their PDAs. "It's going to happen," Kasrel says, thanks to proven demand for such services and the need of cellular carriers to sell new products and services.
Technical difficulties -- Please stand by
Vendor efforts to provide wireless connectivity for personal digital assistants are hobbled both by technical hurdles and by the usual standardization struggles and tenuous "coopetition" that are typical of the electronics industry. Analysts say better network performance and PDA-size formatting of Web content are the goals of a Who's Who of communication vendors. But success is still two to three years away -- in part because of disagreement on the best ways to solve both challenges.
"It's really the networks that are the bottleneck at this point," says Ross Rubin, vice president at Jupiter Communications, a market-research firm. The problem: Cellular phone networks are just now getting the ability to transmit the packets of data that go over the Internet. One of the most promising, CDPD, which overlays packet transmission on top of standard analog networks, has been a slow-growth market for many years, Rubin says, adding "the digital networks are not really built up yet."
CDPD's lack of widespread coverage also makes it too expensive for most users, says Randy Giusto, an analyst at International Data Corp. The promising digital cellular standard, GSM, is ubiquitous in Europe but just getting started in the United States. "There's not one overwhelming standard, and GSM is not optimal for large data packets," Giusto says.
"We don't have the infrastructure in place to give us the speed we need," says J. Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights. Purdy says the best speed that CDPD networks have been able to demonstrate is around 14 kilobits per second, less than half the throughput of the typical desktop PC modem and probably too slow to keep wireless PDAs filled with timely and useful information. Purdy predicts, however, that adequate wireless PDA throughputs between 28 and 128 kbps will arrive in two to three years.
Almost everyone agrees that wireless-enabled Web servers will be the main repositories of both public and personal data, but techniques and standards for displaying and updating the data remain unsettled. Even the most-hyped standard, Wireless Application Protocol, which is expected to show up in "smart" phones and some handhelds within a year, "tends to assume a very low level of functionality on the device," Rubin says. "It's really designed for a four-line phone."
WAP requires regular Web content to be reformatted into a wireless markup language (WML) and could yet lose out to other formats promulgated by individual vendors. One example: the "Web clipping" format 3Com developed in-house to show information on its newly available Palm VII wireless PDA.
One size does not fit all
The generation of wireless personal digital assistants just emerging is also diverging onto two hardware platforms: "traditional" PDAs with added wireless transmitters, and cellular "smart phones" with PDA functions built in.
Both will be useless without a healthy industry of software companies and service providers dedicated to customizing Web data specifically for smaller screen sizes and getting it onto wireless networks.
Two of the new smart phones have explicit links to PDAs. Qualcomm's long-awaited pdQ puts an actual version of 3Com's popular Palm PDA interface right on the phone's oversize screen. The phone started shipping in late spring but has been criticized by several analysts for being too big and heavy at 6.2-by-2.6 inches and 10 ounces.
"Cell phones are very, very form-factor conscious," says Bruce Kasrel, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "But this thing's a boat."
Of much more modest size is the 5.5-inch, 6.4-ounce NeoPoint 1000 from Integrated Global Solution. Expected to sell for under $300 when it ships later this summer, the NeoPoint 1000 has a built-in PDA, pager, and wireless Internet e-mail. The screen interface was developed by Phone.Com (formerly Unwired Planet) the leading purveyor of so-called "microbrowsers" and the supporting Web server technology needed to reformat and transmit Web content to phones.
Among PDAs, 3Com's newly released Palm VII is regarded as something of a watershed in wireless, thanks to its small size, all-in-one setup, and the supporting Palm.Net radio network, which beams news, financial data, and flight information to the device.
Microsoft and Socket Communications have also announced a PC Card wireless modem for Windows CE-based handhelds, and Motorola says it will soon roll out its i1000 cell-phone/pager/radio hybrid, which also has built-in PDA functions.
Content for the PDAs may come from yet another quarter. Web portals such as Yahoo and Lycos now offer online calendars and personal information management software that stores PDA data on central servers. These sites, as well as standalone Web PIMs such as Visto Briefcase and Day-Timer Digital, already offer synchronization with 3Com Palm and Windows CE handhelds. Briefcase recently added wireless links to the Palm VII.
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