Plug and pray: A wireless test goes awry

The digital wireless lifestyle--of anywhere, anytime, anyplace connectivity--remains a promise.

commentary They keep telling me that this wireless stuff will make me more productive. You know: Anywhere, anytime, anyplace. If I adopt this digital wireless lifestyle, I'll not only get more done in less time, but my company will be better for it. But if my most recent experience at a technology conference is any indicator of the current state of wireless, then, folks, we are in big trouble.

I wasn't asking for much. I thought I saw a connection between a chic wireless setup and competitive advantage for my company--and for me as a reporter. After all, many of my contemporaries are looking for work. If I don't ratchet up my performance, there's always another whippersnapper who will happily eat my lunch.

I attacked the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo with the following arsenal: An iPaq Pocket PC would be my workhorse word processor and e-mail client, equipped with ThinkOutside's Stowaway keyboard. I would carry two PC Card-based wireless networking adapters: a Cisco 350 Aironet card in case the conference had any 802.11b (WiFi) hot spots, and--for working between the hot spots--a Sierra Wireless 300 CDPD card provisioned for cellular-based Internet connectivity from EarthLink.

Here was my game plan: At each keynote speech, technical session, and exhibitor's booth, I would break out my lightweight gear to take notes with Pocket Word. After each meeting or session, I'd find a quiet corner to fill in some blanks, correct some spellings, and fire off a story wirelessly, via e-mail, to my editor back in Massachusetts. Theoretically, I'd be filing stories faster than my competitors, and I'd probably file more of them because I'd be spending less time walking around.

(Usually, reporters at these events will run around with pen and paper or a notebook computer. After collecting enough information for a story, they'll go back to the event's pressroom or their hotel room--often at the end of the day--finish up the story or stories, dial into their corporate networks and e-mail the files to their editors.)

Since my iPaq sleeve can accommodate only one PC Card, I knew I'd have to figure out whether the corner I picked to work from was hot for WiFi, or if I needed to fall back to CDPD-based connectivity. If I put the Cisco WiFi card into the PC Card slot and the card found a connection, I'd be in business for high-speed wireless access. If not, I'd yank the card out and go with the slower CDPD connectivity. But I'd try to avoid the latter option at all costs. It's really  slow.

To e-mail my stories, I planned to access my company's virtual private network (VPN) with Pocket PC's built-in VPN client, and then connect Pocket Outlook via POP3 to my company's Exchange server. In case this didn't work, my Plan B was to leave my notebook connected to the event's network via a second Cisco Aironet 350 adapter and to wirelessly synchronize the iPaq with my notebook using Microsoft's ActiveSync software (I do this at home all the time). Then, I could use the notebook to mail the documents to my editor.

So what happened?
My plan turned out to be an exercise in futility, and I'm not sure who to blame. Suffice it to say that there was not a single strong link in the chain. Each link--the wireless technology, my e-mail provider, the Pocket PC operating system, et al.--pretty much crumbled under the pressure of my experiment.

The first thing to do was to make sure that Plan B was ready to go, in case Plan A didn't work out. This required setting up my notebook in the pressroom and leaving it connected to the event's network. Unfortunately, the pressroom wasn't hot for 802.11b. Fortunately, I'd brought along a Xircom Ethernet card that I swapped for the Cisco WiFi adapter in the notebook. That's how I got on the Net. At the very least, I would be able to do a wireless ActiveSync.

After writing my first story, I noticed that my iPaq with the Cisco card wouldn't connect to the event's wireless network. As it turned out, the pressroom wasn't the only place that wasn't hot. In fact, practically the entire venue was cold. There were only a handful of hot spots and they were almost never where I needed them when I needed them. So, before opting for the slower CDPD connection, I ran looking for a hot spot. I knew I'd found one when I suddenly bumped into 50 or so conference attendees sitting on the floor and stairs and anywhere they could find a small piece of real estate, with their notebook computers and PDAs, trying to do whatever they were doing, wirelessly.

I fired up my PDA. Nothing. Fortunately, the sponsor of the wireless network--Symbol Technologies--had engineers right there at a wireless help desk to support people who were having problems connecting. I got in line. While I waited with a crowd of other frustrated attendees, we tried to diagnose each other's problems. None of us knew enough to help each other. Finally, an engineer came to my aid. He tapped this and that and the other thing. Nothing.

"That's strange," he said. "It should be working." But it wasn't. It had been working perfectly when I left my house. We played with Pocket PC's connection settings, which have to be the most confusing thing I've ever seen on any computer. Still nothing. He suggested that perhaps the drivers for my Cisco card were old. I had downloaded them less than a week ago.

On the verge of giving up, he said, "Let's try this." He removed the Cisco card, replaced it with a Symbol card, loaded the drivers for that card onto my iPaq, and fired it up. Voila! I was on the network. This was plug-and-pray at its best. We never did figure out why the other card didn't work.

Next, I tried to connect to my company's VPN--about 10 times. Each time, it told me that the modem on the other end had disconnected. Modem? What modem? I was connecting to a server via the Internet. There were no modems on the other end.

And on to plans B through F
With my competitive advantage having shifted long ago to competitive disadvantage, I decided to go for Plan B: the wireless synch with my notebook back in the pressroom. On my iPaq, I opened up ActiveSync and selected Synchronize off the menu--just like I do at home. Nothing happened. Uh-oh. I hadn't thought of Plan C yet.

I ran back to the pressroom, where my competitors were sipping coffee. Here I was, with my story trapped in my iPaq and no way of getting it into my notebook, which was connected to the network. I hadn't thought to bring the stupid cradle that connects the iPaq directly to the notebook with a wire. I assumed I wouldn't need it. Bad assumption.

Then a lightbulb went off in my head. I had connectivity in the hot spot! Instead of filing the story through the company's e-mail servers, I could go back out to the hot spot and file my story through one of my many Internet-bound POP3 accounts. As I walked back to the hot spot, I wrote a message to my editor in Pocket Outlook, attached my story to it, and put it in the Outbox associated with one of those POP3 accounts. As I arrived at the hot spot, I reinserted the Symbol card (never keep this inserted in cold spots or you'll just use up your PDA's battery for no good reason), launched Pocket Outlook, and hit the Send/Receive button. Pocket Outlook complained that my connection settings--the ones impossible to figure out--were incorrect.

I went to the connection settings screen. It said something like, "When needed, automatically connect to the Internet using these settings" and it gave me two choices: Internet Settings and Work Settings. Um. Internet? Then, there was another setting that said, "When needed, automatically connect to Work using these settings," and it gave the same choices. Work? Next it asked what my network card connects to, Work or the Internet? Huh? My PC never asks me these confusing questions. I tried every permutation and none of them worked. I considered Plan D: a cold beer. But then I remembered: I can access that same POP3 account via a Web browser.

So I opened up Internet Explorer and went to the Web page for my e-mail account. I logged in. Things were starting to look up. I went to a Compose Mail screen, filled out the Address and Subject fields, and went hunting for the Attach button that I needed to attach my story to the e-mail. This alone was difficult because the Pocket PC only displayed a corner of the page. I had to scroll horizontally and vertically to find the middle part of the page that had the attachment options. They weren't there. What happened to them? I suspect that the Web page had some JavaScript on it that wasn't recognized by Pocket PC's version of Internet Explorer, but honestly, I don't know and I'm not sure I ever will.

Still, all was not lost. I went to the original document, and cut and pasted the text into the body of the message. So far, so good. I hit the Send button and rejoiced in a message that said, "Success. Message sent."

I'd counted my eggs too soon. I called my editor to see if he'd received my story. He hadn't. I tried sending it about 10 more times. No luck. I called the company--ReadyHosting.com--that hosts my POP3 account to find out why it wasn't working. I was told that the server that my account is on was probably being blocked by an upstream ISP because someone else, through their own account on the same server, was sending spam. Great.

Plan E: Another beer? No. I went back to the pressroom. I sat down at my notebook and rewrote the story. Then, I attempted to connect to my company's VPN from the notebook (remember, it was connected to the event's network via an Ethernet card). Nothing fancy here. I did this all the time from home. Boy, did I miss home. Everything works there. But in the pressroom, I got a message that I'd never seen before. Something like, "The network cannot open the required port." Not again!

OK, Plan F. The pressroom had dial-up lines and my ThinkPad, thankfully, has a built-in modem. I dialed into my ISP. The VPN worked like a charm. Finally, I sent my story. I figured I had to be the very last reporter to file his first story. But as I watched my story disappear into the ether, I noticed the reporter in front of me was filing her story, too. She was dictating her story to someone over the telephone. Well, at least I beat somebody. But not by much. Not by much at all.

Have a wireless horror story you'd like to share? TalkBack below or e-mail me.

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