September 7, 1999
by Yardena Arar
(IDG) -- The wired world is losing its wires. New wireless Internet technologies and products are making instant access to e-mail and the Internet as close as the PDA in your pocket or the cell phone in your purse.
New hardware products -- ranging from wireless modems and data-ready phones to smarter pagers -- make it easier than ever to access critical information whether you are near a phone line or not. And information providers including Microsoft and Yahoo are formatting their content for these new wireless devices, so you can get stock quotes, weather reports, and other info nuggets, as well as e-mail, wherever you are. Our hands-on evaluation of some recent products and services indicates wireless Internet access works surprisingly well.
That's not to say this brave new untethered world works perfectly. Finding a service that works wherever you roam isn't easy and probably won't be for some time. You can't buy off-the-shelf wireless hardware at random and expect it to work with any service provider. The tiny screens and keyboards on these new devices can turn reading and writing e-mail into unpleasant chores. Access speeds are poky, too -- 19.2 kbps is the norm. And though prices for that access have fallen, you can expect to pay a premium for a cable-free lifestyle.
The wireless world may seem complicated. But in it, as in the familiar wired world you're so accustomed to, you need three basic things to go online: a modem or some other hardware device, a service provider that will connect that hardware to the Internet, and content to look at once you're connected.
The latest wireless modems are sleek, cheap, and easy to use. Take, for example, Novatel's Merlin Type II PC Card and Sierra Wireless's AirCard 300. Both are type II PC Cards with small, built-in antennas--meaning that they'll work with most notebooks and with many Windows CE handhelds. In addition, they're a breeze to operate: The $549 AirCard 300 connects as soon as you boot up your Windows PC; the $279 Merlin comes with a little app that you must click to initiate contact. Their 19.2-kbps speed does make for some pretty leisurely Web browsing -- a high-end Web site page with several graphic elements can take a minute or two to load -- but their waiting times are tolerable, and they're perfectly adequate for e-mail.
If you own a digital cellular phone, you have another option: AirTouch Cellular, Sprint, and GTE offer cables for connecting your digital phone to your notebook PC's serial port. The resulting connections are slower -- typically, 14.4 kbps -- than those managed by the Novatel and Sierra modems.
If having to carry around extra cables bugs you, we have good news: A new technology dubbed Bluetooth will soon make them superfluous. Bluetooth is similar to infrared, but it can connect devices over a wider area. For example, you'll be able to dial up your ISP on a cell phone and then beam the connection to your laptop. And because Bluetooth-enabled devices won't have to be in sight of each other to connect, you'll be free to print out your e-mail on a printer in a different room. Bluetooth-enabled products aren't yet available. But you can expect them to begin arriving early next year from many vendors in the 850-member Bluetooth Special Interest Group -- which includes cell phone giants Ericsson and Nokia, as well as notebook notables IBM and Toshiba (for the full list see the Bluetooth Web site, link below).
Downloads by hand
The hottest news in wireless hardware, however, involves smaller devices -- both handhelds (like the Palm Pilot) and cell phones and pagers -- that let you download e-mail and browse the Web.
On the PDA front, the Palm VII offers out-of-the-box wireless access to the Internet via 3Com's Palm.net access service. Owners of the Palm III, IIIx, or IIIe can use Novatel's $369 Minstrel III modem and service for e-mail and text browsing. And this fall, Novatel expects to ship the Minstrel E-15 modem for Casio's E-15 Windows CE palmtop.
Two-way pagers like Motorola's new PageWriter 2000x and Research in Motion's Inter@ctive Pager let you send and receive e-mail. They also come equipped with microbrowsers, which grab stock quotes, news stories, and other Web information in a format small-screen devices can read. Unfortunately, composing mail on these pagers' teensy-weensy keyboards is no fun. (The PageWriter does let you select from a menu of brief prewritten messages such as 'Thank You' to save you typing.) Pager networks are slow -- Skytel's maximum speeds are 9.6 kbps for downloads, 6.4 kbps for uploads -- but access doesn't feel slow. E-mail messages arrive with a beep, like any other incoming page. But reading small text on a pager's dimly lit screen can strain your eyes, and most paging services will truncate long incoming messages.
You'll find similar capabilities in a host of new digital cellular phones, such as Qualcomm's QCP-860 and QCP-1960 thin phones (the 860 works on both digital and analog cellular networks, while the 1960 is digital only) and the NeoPoint 1000. These so-called smart phones let you send e-mail and receive some Web information; most also include built-in address books and contact managers. Screen quality tends to be better (but screen size is no larger) than on pagers; however, composing messages is even more irritating because you enter letters via a telephone keypad (hitting the 7 key three times to get the letter S, for instance).
Hardware alone is not enough. Notebooks and handhelds connecting via a digital cell phone can simply dial up a standard ISP. If you're using a wireless modem, however, you need a special data account -- using the CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) protocol -- from your cellular service. The reason: Whereas your cell phone connects to the public telephone system (through which you then connect to your ISP), wireless modems are designed to connect only to wireless data networks.
Bell Atlantic, AT&T, GTE, and Ameritech all offer CDPD accounts nationally; OmniPoint and others do the same thing regionally. Prices for these services have dropped in some instances. Bell Atlantic, for example, introduced its service at $55 per month for unlimited access, and now charges $40. Unfortunately, unlimited pricing applies only within your network. If you roam, you incur steep charges for accessing other networks: AT&T charges 5 cents per KB, and Bell Atlantic 8 cents.
Wireless data networks are not universal. As the map on the Wireless Data Forum's home page shows (link below), CDPD coverage is extensive in major metropolitan areas of the U.S. but sparse elsewhere. If your business takes you to Montana, upstate New York, or the rural South, for example, your wireless modem may suddenly be useless. Similarly, Metricom's proprietary 28.8-kbps Ricochet Internet access service is available only in Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and 12 major airports nationwide.
Phones get smart
Handhelds, pagers, and phones are another story. AT&T's pioneering PocketNet service began delivering Web-based content to CDPD cell phones last year. But now major carriers including Sprint, GTE, and AT&T are rolling out new data services for smart phones on their digital networks, identified by such obscure acronyms as CDMA, TDMA, and PCS1900. These networks support more connections and will eventually move data at higher speeds than today's CDPD-based services. But initially the new services will run at a poky 14.4 kbps, so from a speed standpoint, CDPD -- which can attain a maximum speed of 19.2 kbps -- should remain attractive for now. Metricom's coming service -- Ricochet2, due to arrive next summer in 12 cities -- will reach 128 kbps. Cellular carriers say a third-generation type of digital cellular service, due in or after 2001, will improve bandwidth further.
Phones, pagers, and even handhelds may already access the Internet, but their display, memory, and bandwidth limitations make them rather unwieldy tools for full-scale Web browsing. Fortunately, new services cut the Net down to size for wireless devices.
If you sign up for Microsoft's MSN Mobile, you'll get customized weather reports, your daily horoscope, quotes for up to 10 stocks at preset times or price points, lottery results, and personalized reminders delivered to your pager, PDA, smart phone, or other e-mail address. Sprint PCS customers will soon be able to get their My Yahoo information by phone.
If you need more interactive information, you'll want something closer to 3Com's Palm.net for the Palm VII. With Palm.net, after you tap the E-trade icon on the application menu and fill in a stock symbol, E-trade delivers the quote. GoAmerica, a "wireless ISP," provides Web and e-mail access for Research in Motion's Inter@ctive pagers. Sprint plans to roll out similar services for PCS customers with smart phones this fall.
But information providers who want to go wireless have run into a problem: They've had to create different versions of their content for each wireless device. So a consortium of wireless businesses has developed a new protocol -- the Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP. Any content in WAP form can be read by any WAP-compatible device.
WAP has already won the backing of major wireless carriers and hardware vendors: New phones from Nokia, Motorola, Qualcomm, Samsung, Ericsson, Neopoint, and others will be WAP-compliant. Microsoft has announced its support, too, and 3Com plans to incorporate phone.com's WAP-compliant browser into the Palm OS. Expect to see the first WAP-compliant devices by the year's end.
Which way wireless?
Which kind of wireless Internet is for you? Notebook users can go with the cellular modem of their choice -- perhaps Novatel's Merlin Type II PC Card or Sierra Wireless's AirCard 300 -- and a CDPD account. Palm VII owners are already set; and if you own a Palm III or IIIx, you can make the jump by getting a Minstrel modem and data account. If you're wedded to your digital phone, check your carrier's data offerings -- and expect to pay a small surcharge. If you want to use your pager for e-mail, try a RIM Inter@ctive pager with BellSouth Wireless Data service, currently priced at between $25 and $100 per month, depending on volume.
Whichever wireless data option you choose, you'll find staying connected to the Net is more practical than ever, even when you can't find a phone jack. As wireless hardware and service prices fall -- and as speeds increase, coverage improves, and content proliferates -- staying connected will get easier. To users suffering from information overload, that may sound like a curse. But if you need to stay in touch at all times, wireless Internet access will be a blessing.
For more on this topic, click "Cut the cords: Four ways to go wireless," link below.
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