Behind Palm's new network

Tough challenges face 3Com Corp. as it gets ready to field-test its Palm VII device--a pocket-size, instant-on organiser that will provide wireless Internet access and is intended to operate for several weeks on two AAA batteries.

Being familiar with the weak points of past attempts at wireless Internet access, PC Week Labs gives IT buyers this assessment of the obstacles to overcome and the inventive technical choices 3Com is making as the company seeks to transform the Palm VII--by its planned ship date later this year--from a promise to a product. It's important to recognise that the company is starting from scratch in asking what mobile users really want from the Internet; the Palm VII must be evaluated on its own terms, not on its ability to imitate familiar Web browsers.

Experienced buyers of portable IT equipment know that three qualities must be balanced to create an acceptable compromise: The device must be forgettably small and lightweight, conveniently long-lived between battery replacements or recharging, and far-reaching in its ability to connect from many locations. Harried IT managers also hope for a wireless data connection that doesn't require as much user hand-holding as past solutions, which typically involved a cumbersome process of installing drivers and activating a wireless service account. The Palm VII's integrated design and wireless network facilities may make the device more attractive to users and less of a burden to IT managers.

The company's Palm Computing Platform is popular because of its small size, lightness and long battery life, so it's no surprise that the Palm VII resembles the current Palm III organiser--without even the slight added bulk of the add-on wireless modems available for that unit. Lucent Technologies Inc. will provide its POMP (Peace of Mind Processor)-15 as the heart of the Palm VII's integral radio transceiver. Lucent's POMP-15 combines signal conversion and coding capabilities into a single chip instead of the relatively bulky and power-hungry trio of chips required by previous wireless devices.

The Palm VII's flip-up antenna, resembling a lollipop stick that nestles along one edge of the unit, serves as an alternate power-on switch. Raising the antenna activates the unit, in a gesture reminiscent of a "Star Trek" character flipping open a voice communicator.

The built-in radio module is tightly coupled with Palm VII user interactions--it can revert to minimum-power operation whenever the user is not actively seeking remote data. The POMP-15 chip draws only 40 microamperes (less than one-eighth of a milliwatt) in its standby mode, thereby making a significant contribution to the Palm VII's promised battery life of several weeks under normal use.

Other Palm VII functions will run on the same Motorola Inc. 68328 Dragonball processor that drives other Palm devices, making the Palm VII upwardly compatible with applications designed for the current Palm III and PalmPilot.

This contrasts with the diversity of processors (each requiring its own version of an application) that are found in Windows CE devices. The Palm VII preserves its platform's compatibility advantage, which will continue even following the long-overdue consolidation of multiple Windows CE releases slated to get under way this month. In addition to limiting power consumption through integrated design, a critical variable in the battery-life equation is a widely dispersed network. When a connection point is always nearby, a portable device can minimise its use of transmitter power.

The wireless network that serves the Palm VII must also provide the broad and reliable data access, with secure transaction capabilities, that users expect on the Web. Going beyond these must-have requirements, 3Com is promising prospective users that they will be able to set up and manage wireless services directly from newly bought Palm VII units. To achieve its goals for network availability and ease of management, the company is co-operating with a team of partners comprising BellSouth Wireless Data L.P. for network infrastructure, Certicom Corp. for encryption and authentication, and Portal Software Inc. for account control.

The product of 3Com's team effort will be Palm.Net, a nationwide wireless service to be priced at $10 per month for basic services and to be carried on the BellSouth Intelligent Wireless Network. The BellSouth network uses Ericsson Inc.'s Mobitex packet network hardware, with broad service availability enhanced by an expansion of the system done in the fall: BellSouth Wireless Data claims to serve more than 93 percent of the U.S. urban business population.

Palm.Net offers a new view of wireless Internet access, optimised for sustained operation with limited bandwidth and minimal power requirements. Users of other handheld platforms, such as Windows CE devices, will just have to wait for somebody else to follow 3Com into the water; Palm.Net will only serve Palm VII devices. There are no apparent plans to broaden its base to the rest of the handheld wireless marketplace.

Palm.Net's new approach to Web access bears the name of "Web clipping," a phrase that invokes the image of a reader clipping a fragment of a page for reference rather than ripping out the entire page. Palm.Net doesn't attempt to provide Web surfing, with its bandwidth-intensive norms of graphically rich pages and its multibranching hyperlinks that lead from one page to many others. Instead, Palm.Net queries for specific information, with answers that are often tied to users' locations at the time of the query. For example, a request might be for a weather forecast or the location of the nearest courier pickup point.

The Palm.Net approach minimises data transfers by retaining forms and their graphics on the portable unit. Palm.Net also maximises effective bandwidth by using the low-overhead UDP (User Datagram Protocol) rather than the wired Internet's TCP. UDP is an electronic message in a bottle, so to speak: It does not create the equivalent of a virtual circuit to ensure that a packet is received, but it's efficient in handling the brief bursts of data associated with Palm.Net's query/response operations.

The Palm.Net server translates between the TCP/IP environment of the larger Internet and the minimalist UDP of the Palm VII's wireless interactions. In tests of prototype systems, PC Week Labs observed response times to interactive queries that were on the order of a few seconds--although this fails to reflect higher levels of network use that will presumably arise once the Palm VII is selling in volume.

To enable secure transactions without the overhead of the SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) that's common on the wired Internet, Palm.Net will be an early adopter of the lean and mean elliptic curve encryption technology. The BellSouth network can take notice of the node at which a portable user is connecting and provide what 3Com wireless products director Joe Sipher called "poor man's global positioning": The network typically knows a user's location to within a few city blocks and can tailor responses to suit the location.

Regardless of the ingenuity of Palm VII's hardware, Palm.Net will make or break 3Com's offering. In PC Week's Oct. 19, 1998, Shoot-Out comparing wireless networking alternatives, PC Week Labs found the choice of wireless service provider to be more important than the choice of client hardware in determining the value of each option.

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