Wireless: The new rage in notebooks

Dell and Apple bet that built-in wireless features are what notebook users want.

Notebook computer makers are rushing to take advantage of emerging wireless standards to the potential benefit of road warriors, corporations -- even schools.

Dell Computer, for example is brewing up an alphabet soup of PANs and LANs to work with its notebooks. But other vendors, including Compaq Computer and Apple Computer, aren't far behind in their thinking. "The new wave says, how do we make these machines simpler and simpler -- with specialised functions? Wireless connectivity becomes the actual baseline," Compaq President Michael Capellas said at a European news briefing Monday.

While Compaq is exploring wireless, Dell and Apple are already putting together features for their portables. Dell is learning some lessons first hand, in part because space at its Round Rock, Texas campus is at a premium. Headcount is growing so quickly some company managers have given up their office space, and now work out of conference rooms, using a wireless LAN to stay connected and up-to-date.

"We have Lucent cards... and we also have Aironet cards working in campus buildings," said Tim Peters general manager of Dell's Latitude business. "We see the benefits of (wireless LAN) and the usability. At the same time the performance and the cost have come in line."

Dell this month will begin shipping wireless LAN cards with its Latitude notebook PCs. The company will make Aironet Wireless Communications's 4800 series wireless LAN card a factory-installed option on Latitude notebooks. The cards, which utilise using direct sequencing, 802.11 compliant radio transmitters, allow for wireless network access from up to 300 feet from a network access point. The cards slide into the notebook's PC Card slot and sport a small antenna.

Dell hasn't set pricing on the cards, however. Aironet sells them for about $800 (£496) each, with the access points going for about $2000.

While Dell likes the technology -- it helps add personnel quickly -- companies and even schools could take advantage of it by saving the cost of wiring existing buildings, Peters said. "We have school districts around the country looking at this stuff," he said. Dell will start off by offering the cards with its Latitude, but will soon offer them across all of its portable products, including its Inspiron brand, and with its desktop PCs as well. An end user or a user with a small business could use the cards to network two PCs as well.

Dell is also a member of WECA, the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. The alliance is working to create worldwide standards for wireless technology. With standards in place, wireless products, such as the Aironet cards, will become more interoperable and will also fall in price, making them more practical for customers to purchase and use, Peters said. Later in the year, as these standards come together, Dell will offer its own wireless LAN technology. Just like the Aironet product, the Dell hardware will be installed and configured at the factory. Customers will be able to get the device installed on any Dell notebook.

Dell isn't the only notebook vendor eyeing wireless. On Wednesday. Apple began shipping the iBook portable, which comes with low-cost wireless technology. iBook's wireless LAN, called AirPort, allows users to share an Internet connection, much like the Dell product. The device will cost much less than one of Dell's Aironet cards, but its range is shorter, about 150 feet. Up to 10 users can take advantage of a single AirPort base station, which acts as an Internet connection point using an analogue modem, or with a cable or digital subscriber line modem. The AirPort card is priced at $99, while the base station, expected to ship next month, will be $299.

Dell will also support Bluetooth, a short-area wireless technology that uses 2.4GHz radio to connect devices that are within 30 to 40 feet of each other. This is what Dell refers to by the term PAN, or personal area network. Bluetooth can allow a notebook and a device such as a cell phone or personal digital assistant to communicate wirelessly. That way, a PDA could synchronise data with the notebook or the notebook could utilise the phone as a modem, without a physical connection.

Bluetooth is also an emerging standard. Version 1.0 of the specification was published in July. Intel is developing Bluetooth radio modules and software drivers for use in notebooks. The major initial benefit of Bluetooth will be in simply connecting battery-powered devices, Intel officials said at this month's Intel Developers Forum in Palm Springs. Later, the technology will be used for network access points and home networking, he said.

But in the near future, "You'll see multiple information appliances with (Bluetooth), not just PCs," he said. "The biggest benefit will be for the road warrior. " The first Bluetooth-enabled notebooks are expected early next year, according to Intel. They will likely use PC card-technology, similar to the Aironet cards. Later, Bluetooth will come in Mini PCI modules. Mini PCI is a specification for inserting daughter cards, such as modems and Ethernet into notebook chassis, Peters said.

A standard that merges the 802.11 wireless specification and Bluetooth, called 802.15, is also in the works, he said. Dell will likely support that, too.

Despite their moves to conquer local area wireless, vendors have yet to do so with wide area wireless ventures. Vendors such as IBM have tried. In just one example, IBM launched with Motorola a joint venture called ARDIS, to provide notebook users with wide area wireless service. The service, based on cellular packet data (CDPD), never really took off and IBM pulled out. Motorola sold ARDIS to American Mobile Satellite in March 1998. American Mobile now uses ARDIS to provide two-way paging and wireless email services, among other things.