Making wireless connections at Comdex

Wireless at Comdex: What will be hot in Vegas?

As the Mighty Joe Young of U.S. computer trade shows, Comdex is the spot for vendors to connect with technology buyers. At this year's gathering -- which runs Nov. 13-17 in Las Vegas -- an unprecedented number of those connections will be wireless.

Last November, I was surprised by the amount of pervasive computing actually in use by attendees. The number of mobile phones, wireless PDAs, and laptops being used in and around the show would impress even the most jaded Silicon Valley native.

At risk of hyperbole, there are some significant computing and lifestyle trends that will emerge at Comdex that are likely to change the way you conduct your affairs day to day.

The wireless LAN is the hottest segment in the PC industry right now. Based on the IEEE 802.11 Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS) standard, wireless LANs allow users to communicate with other 802.11-based equipment and legacy devices through the use of wireless access points.

And because 802.11 uses radio signals to communicate through solid objects (such as walls and floors), you can access a wireless LAN and the Internet without the line-of-sight requirements of infrared.

The huge advantage of a wireless LAN over wiring your house or office with Category 5 Ethernet cabling is the difference in time and price. With wireless, you can forget about the hassle of fishing wire through walls and the nightmare of crimping cable ends -- and wireless vendors are beginning to capitalize on its popularity.

There are now several dozen players in the 802.11 and 802.11b wireless-LAN market. Originally developed by Apple Computer Inc. in an 18-month collaboration with Lucent, the 11-Mbps wireless standard caught most of the Windows world flat-footed when it debuted last year.

But not for long: Since Apple announced Airport in July 1999, almost every major CPU vendor has released or announced an 802.11 product.

Consumers and businesses alike have embraced wireless networking with open arms, and the demand shows no sign of abating. Expect that trend to continue in November when the major PC manufacturers follow Apple's and Dell's example by announcing a plethora of notebook and desktop PCs with integrated 802.11 antennas.

Another popular item will be PC Card wireless adapters for existing notebook models. Let's just hope that vendors will be able to deliver the goods.

It won't be long before every desktop and notebook PC shipped has built-in support for some form (or even multiple forms) of wireless networking. The ideal situation would be the combination of both 802.11 and Bluetooth into one omnibus wireless standard that would connect PCs, vending machines, and just about anything else with a logic board.

The challenger to the wireless LAN is the Home RF standard developed by industry heavyweights Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc.

Home RF is another radio-frequency networking protocol that allows users to network a home or office using standard twisted-pair copper wiring already in walls. The technology is aimed at the home and has the potential to give 802.11 a run for its money, but 802.11 has already built a significant wave of momentum in the market.

Home RF has some interesting voice-over-LAN features, and it was just approved by the FCC to move from about 1.6 to 10 Mbps. Nevertheless, if you need a greater level of comfort with your investment -- and with future expansion plans -- a better choice is 802.11. The support of almost 50 vendors also gives 802.11 a clear lead in the wireless-LAN space.

Another highlight on the show floor will be wireless-communications upstart Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a specification for a small, low-power radio in a chip that can communicate wirelessly with other Bluetooth devices without infrared beams. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which includes world leader companies 3Com, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, and Toshiba, set out to create an open specification for a "short-range, cable replacement, radio technology."

Bluetooth allows you to create a "personal area network" (PAN) between mobile phones, pagers, PDAs, and laptops that connects to the Internet. According to a report by Allied Business Intelligence, there will be more than 1.4 billion Bluetooth nodes in use by 2005 -- compared with just 56 million nodes next year.

The concept is simple: You will use your Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone to communicate with your Bluetooth PDA and desktop computer.

Bluetooth digital cameras will even send pictures directly to colleagues via Internet base stations or Bluetooth public phones. Bluetooth can also be embedded in smaller consumer appliances and Internet devices.

Bluetooth operates at relatively low data rates over short distances using very little power, while 802.11 operates at higher data rates over longer distances using more power. 802.11 clearly has an important head start in businesses, while Bluetooth has the potential to dominate home and education.

Look for some cool Bluetooth announcements and demonstrations at Comdex Fall 2000 from mobile-phone vendors such as Motorola (Timeport 270), Nokia (modified 9110) and Ericsson (T36) and from other members of the Bluetooth SIG like Toshiba's Bluetooth PC Card.

Virtually every vendor at Comdex will have a pervasive component among their offerings; it is almost a necessity to remain relevant in today's market. For years, computers have been getting smaller and moving off the desktop -- now they need a way to communicate with home base, the office and the Internet.

PDA vendors Palm Computing Inc. and Handspring Inc. are likely to announce a new model or two: Handspring is close to announcing a new PDA model (Prism) in 16-bit color, and Palm will add color screens, wireless access, and expansion via the Secure Digital (SD) format across most of its product line before the year is out.

Keep an eye on wireless concerns OmniSky Corp., Metricom Inc., and Reasearch In Motion (RIM). OmniSky has enjoyed excellent sales of its wireless modem for the Palm V, and the company is getting close to announcing a wireless modem for the Handspring Visor's Springboard expansion slot.

Metricom is busy rolling out its new, faster 128-Kbps wireless modem and service. Research In Motion (RIM), although not currently on the exhibitor list, has won a lot of press recognition for its BlackBerry wireless e-mail service and RIM 957 PDA/pager device.

Jason D. O'Grady is editor in chief of Go2Mac.com and PalmLounge.com.