Cellular calls

In all the discussion about thin clients, we wonder why cell phones don't immediately leap to the fore. It's probably because in the United States, we're PC-centric and the notion of thin client implies slimming down a PC, rather than fattening up a cell phone.

In all the discussion about thin clients, we wonder why cell phones don't immediately leap to the fore. It's probably because in the United States, we're PC-centric and the notion of thin client implies slimming down a PC, rather than fattening up a cell phone. But not everyone in the world looks at it this way. In certain countries, such as Finland and Israel, and in some developing countries such as China, the cell phone is the most logical universal access device.

Everyone can talk, and everyone knows how to use a telephone. Most businesspeople have cell phones nowadays. So why not build out the cell phone and its supporting wireless networks so they can handle higher bandwidth and thus carry microbrowser communications? The cell phones that offer this capability are just beginning to ship from vendors such as Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Samsung and Qualcomm. Microsoft has gotten wind of the trend and is out to catch up with tiny rival Symbian in building a microbrowser. Can there be a surer sign that the market is about to blossom?

But there are a few more steps that need to be taken for the cellular phone-browser-PDA to be a practical choice. First, the cellular companies need to get together to provide seamless universal access to services beyond conventional voice. The absence of such an infrastructure is probably the reason that 3Com and its Palm unit created PalmNet for its Palm VII—there was no network in place to serve the Palm.

The acquisition of Vodafone by Bell Atlantic sets the stage for progress, since it brings together East Coast and West Coast cellular networks. Also the wireless application protocol—or WAP—needs to be supported broadly so that applications can take advantage of the small but useful screens that come with the new breed of handset.

This week at Internetworld, we'll probably hear a lot about e-commerce and broadband access to voice, data and video over IP. Well and good. But let's not ignore a powerful and ubiquitous device that is right under our chins—the cell phone.

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