Wireless revolution: Hold the phone

Wireless networkers of the world, unite! Why cell phones will go where PCs have never been.

The wireless revolution is upon us, in the boardroom as well as the playroom. Handheld computers are turning up everywhere, and your 10-year-old daughter has a cell plan with more minutes than you do.

OK, that may be a bit of an exaggeration -- but not by much. If you look closely at wireless trends and listen to what the analysts are saying, a completely wireless society will become a reality sooner than later.

The big question is: Will the United States join the vanguard of this revolution, or is it on the verge of being left behind?

Japan, a country with a poor Internet infrastructure, has the most digital wireless customers of any country according to data released by the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry and mobile phone operators. NTT DoCoMo Inc., and DDI group have a total of more than 10 million cellular subscribers, well ahead of even the most optimistic projections.

Finland is even more advanced when it comes to wireless technology. More than 70 percent of the country's 5 million people use cellular telephones. (It doesn't hurt that wireless superpower Nokia is based in Helsinki.) Sweden, home of Ericsson, has also led the wireless revolution for years. Worldwide, wireless phones currently outsell PCs by about 2.5 to 1 annually, and the gap is widening.

Wireless subscriber statistics from International Data Corp.:

1999 2003
US 560,000 73,100,000
Western Europe 91,000 72,000,000
Asia Pacific 460,000 143,400,000
Japan 3,800,000 40,900,000

There are several ways to utilize wireless services to connect to the Internet today, each with its own benefits and caveats. The first and probably the most popular in the United States is the wireless modems available to users of Palm-powered portable computers.

The $449 Palm VII is the first Palm-powered handheld that can connect to the Internet in a simple self-contained package. Modeled after the wildly successful Palm III series, the Palm VII features an integrated antenna and modem that allow users to connect to the Internet quickly and without having to buy expensive peripherals.

The problem with the Palm VII is that the wireless access portion of the service, easily the most lucrative part of the service, is only available from one provider -- Palm.net. Even worse, e-mail was initially only available from the Palm.net account assigned to users when they signed up.

Since the device's nationwide launch back in October, some POP-3 email clients have been released that allow you to retrieve your e-mail from any POP-3 or IMAP compatible mail server. ThinAir 1.4 is probably the best Palm Query Application (PQA) that provides this function. (In fact, it is probably the single best reason to own a Palm VII.) Corsoft iPopper 1.0 does a respectable job as well.

Another wireless Internet access solution is the Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) PC Card modem. Available from Novatel Wireless and Sierra Wireless, PC Card modems are popular with mobile technologists and professional salespeople who have to work from the road. However, these modems are expensive, and the coverage area is still sporadic and unreliable -- even in large metropolitan areas.

The wireless technology with the largest growth potential is WAP-enabled cell phones. By this time next year, every cell phone sold will include a microbrowser that is capable of retrieving e-mail and shopping on the Web. While anticlimactic for Internet professionals, the microbrowser will finally bring the Internet to the mainstream, allowing non-computer types to order books and CDs, and make airplane reservations on a sub-$100 piece of hardware.

Most people are afraid of computers because they are intimidating. You probably aren't intimidated by computers if you're reading ZDNet, but many people feel like they have been left behind by the computer revolution. No matter how easy and GUI the computers become, there is a certain segment of the population that will never use a computer no matter how hard we get them to try.

Enter the phone. Odds are pretty good that your grandmother knows how to use a phone, even if she isn't that excited about surfing the Web with its clutter of acronyms, lingo and blinking-everything.

By 2003, IDC predicts, wireless phones will pass the 1 billion-user mark, outnumbering PCs and televisions combined. Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), a standard for surfing the Web on cell phones, will be embedded in every digital cell phone that ships by this time next year. When this happens, the technological momentum will swing in favor of the consumer, and the amount of e-commerce transacted in the Internet will grow exponentially. Companies of all sizes can't afford to ignore the WAP revolution lest they miss out on a substantial revenue stream.

The problem with wireless technology is that it is still in its infancy. Pioneers, or early adopters, always have the distinction of paying the most for the latest technology that is often not ready for prime time. Unfortunately, today's hurry-up-and-get-something-to-market attitude combined with consumers' demand for faster/smaller/cheaper product has shrunken manufacturers' timelines to unrealistically low levels.

In addition to shrinking production schedules and product life cycles, wireless technology is still very expensive for the average consumer. In addition to the up-front hardware cost ($50 to $500), there is a pretty hefty usage fee for the devices. And as with any metered service, the fees are recurring and usage-based. The recurring revenues are so lucrative that service providers will often sell you the hardware at a loss to get you to subscribe.

To go wireless, you have to add a new $15 to $50 monthly service fee to your monthly bills. What burns most people is that you cannot add wireless services to your current dial-up, long-distance, cellular, cable modem or DSL service for which you're already paying a monthly premium. Wireless services cost more, and demand is so high, there is simply no incentive for the ISPs and telcos to bundle these services together.

In addition to the expense, wireless coverage is still sporadic at best. I often get dropped when I'm using my digital cellular telephone while traveling through major metropolitan cites such as Philadelphia and New York. (Remember when call clarity was a major selling point of digital wireless service?)

And besides the technical hurdles that wireless technology faces, recent studies have raised health concerns about the impact of radio frequency (RF) and cellular signals on the human body. While I don't think I could survive without my cell phone, Palm computer and Apple PowerBook, you have to give some serious thought to the health issues involved. While the jury is still out the health issue, I will continue to thread my cellular microphone/headset cord carefully through my shirt each morning, just to be on the safe side.

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