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Going Wireless: Is this TV Redux?
3/6/2002

At a recent trade show, I was shown a nifty wireless portable organizer/cellphone that displayed Peter Jennings reading the ABC News in a color picture the size of a jumbo postage stamp. "Now how cool is this?" the marketer demanded to know.

"Real cool," I responded, not wanting to rain on this guy's enthusiastic parade by engaging him in a give-and-take over why anyone would ever want to watch Peter Jennings on an oversized cellphone.

In fact, I realized as I walked away, that I already have such a device. It's a tiny battery-operated TV with a one-inch display that can "wirelessly" receive Peter Jennings any night of the week from my local ABC affiliate.

The little TV is at home in a drawer, where it has remained untouched for years. Perhaps waiting for some unforeseen emergency, but never once to catch Peter on the run.

The device I was shown, a Nokia 9210 Communicator, will be on the market in the United States later this year. As technology goes, it's a remarkable gadget. At about eight ounces, the Communicator is not only a GSM cellphone, but a keyboarded wireless minicomputer with built-in applications compatible with Microsoft Office. I had seen Peter Jennings on the built-in RealPlayer from RealNetworks. Wow, streaming media comes to cellphones!

I mean no disrespect to the technology. But after the novelty wears off, how many people are going to find real utility for such a complex gadget in their daily lives? A few, I expect, but not anywhere near the mass market that Nokia covets.

Now that cellphone networks are moving to 2.5 and 3G (generation) systems that can handle the bandwidth demands of video, what will most people use them for? It's the gazillion dollar question that some telecom companies have bet the farm to find out.

SIMPLE AND PRACTICAL

Experience has taught me that no matter how convenient these wireless gadgets appear on paper, their practical value often falls short of expectations with daily use. The shortcomings slowly emerge over time. Usually, this awareness comes long after the date for a refund has expired.

Another observation is that the most advanced technology often doesn't translate into a useful product. There's great virtue in simplicity. The Palm organizer is a good example. Most people still use the Palm's basic, simple features to find phone numbers, addresses and appointments. The company termed this elementary approach to computing "the Zen of Palm."

Yet manufacturers have repeatedly tried to turn these easy-to-use organizers into sophisticated audio-visual pocket computers. Predictably, the mass market has not yet responded to the added bulk, greater complexity, higher cost and shorter battery life.

Now that the wireless Internet is upon us, what will real people do with the technology? I'll bet they won't watch Peter Jennings. I suspect they'll do simple things away from home or office – tasks like checking e-mail, airline flight delays and other routine information needs that pop up on a daily basis.

But do we need a high-bandwidth wireless network for that? One of the more practical of the new Internet-connected, wireless gadgets I've recently experienced utilizes the least amount of bandwidth on one of the nation's slowest data networks. At a transfer rate of up to eight kilobits per second, it would gag on video, but that doesn't matter. This new device – a no-brainer to use – does a few very practical things well at a reasonable cost. It's the new 5.9-ounce Palm i705 Handheld wireless organizer.

WORKHORSE

Essentially, the Palm i705 – at $449 retail – builds on the platform's popular organizer functions by adding a very efficient and flexible always-on wireless e-mail application. Its built-in radio allows users to retrieve e-mail in 260 urban areas over Cingular Interactive's Mobitex wireless network (originally RAM Mobile Data), a packet-switched data-only workhorse from the early 1990s that still outperforms most of the newer digital cellular networks.

Accessing e-mail over this network a decade ago was very expensive, with monthly costs usually exceeding $100. Palm, through its Palm.Net service, now offers limited usage for as little as $20 a month. Unlimited airtime is as low as $35 a month.

Designed specifically for e-mail and limited Web access, the i705 targets people who need to keep up-to-date with their messages wherever they might be. The device is amazingly flexible, allowing encrypted access to just about any type of e-mail account – whether it be POP3, corporate, Hotmail, Yahoo or AOL. It also works with AOL Instant Messaging. New messages are signaled by beep, vibration or a flashing red light.

Another feature that I like is the ability to use my existing e-mail address for responses to messages sent (or forwarded) to the Palm.Net address supplied with the service. This means those who receive messages from the i705 see your regular address and not an unfamiliar one that can cause confusion.

For years, greater bandwidth has been held out as the holy grail that will certainly jumpstart "anywhere, anytime" Internet technology. Now, with the deployment of high-speed wireless nearing reality, the same deficiency that has slowed wired broadband adoption is back – a lack of compelling applications.

THE WRONG PATH?

One wonders if the telecoms are embarking down the same treacherous path that American broadcasters did with terrestrial DTV – that is, building another technology just for technology's sake. Is streaming video on cellphones the best application the industry can come up with to justify the new wireless infrastructure? Let's hope not.

A new killer app needs to be found … and fast! Or it may just be déjà vu all over again for another Internet technology.   Print Page