The wild world of wireless

How consumers can master a multitude of powerful, portable, all-in-onetools

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Time was, more gadgets hanging on your belt conveyed more power, status, and a cutting-edge image.

Today that Batman-utility-belt look is about as cutting edge as a pocket protector.

More people crave the freedom of all-in-one wireless communicators, meshing cellular phones, pagers, and palm-top computers.

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And the marketplace has responded, serving up more devices that - thanks to the wonders of technology "convergence" - can do it all.

Cell phones work as pagers. Pagers send e-mail. Hand-held personal digital assistants (PDAs) serve all three functions.

Don't expect these new tools to replace faster, more ergonomic desktop PCs anytime soon. State-of-the-art hand-helds, for example can access the Web, but only in tiny "sips."

But "wireless technology has reached some sort of inflection point where it's getting fast enough to use," all the time for a wide variety of purposes, says William Bane, a communications industry consultant at Mercer Management Consulting in Washington who has just completed a study of wireless technology.

These advances promise to spread the Internet and the digital revolution to every sidewalk, mall, and automobile in America. The trick for buyers is knowing how and when to jump on the bandwagon.

These new shared functions have already boosted cellular telephone subscriptions - by about 50 percent since 1996, according to Yankee Group data.

A few examples of the most advanced convergence devices on the way:

*The Motorola Pagewriter 2000x two-way pager that retails for about $300 sends and receives e-mail. A small screen displays messages up to nine lines long, but its tiny two-finger keyboard is limiting.

*A new version of the $799 Nokia 9000i cellular telephone sends faxes, e-mails, and even short software programs -with a still not-quite-big-enough keyboard.

*Two new PDAs, the $499 Palm VII and the $149 Handspring Vision, can go online to get e-mail, share calendars, and run limited Web-searches.

The Palm VII uses cellular phone service, so you can link up from just about anywhere.

The Vision has a docking bay that can hold Springboard modules that turn the hand-held PDA into everything from a global-positioning satellite navigation system, to a cellular telephone, to a universal remote control, to an MP3 music player that downloads music off the Internet.

*The Ericsson R380, which the Swedish cell-phone giant plans to introduce late next year, combines a cell phone with a personal organizer and handwriting interface. It also surfs the Web, sends pictures and drawings, and rings or vibrates when new messages arrive.

Monthly service, of course, costs extra.

How much is enough?

While these multifaceted gadgets appear to meet most wireless needs, are they worth the additional cost?

It depends on how you plan to use the device, says David Berndt, a wireless analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston.

If you only need paging and voice contact, a digital phone works fine. If you don't need to talk to people, a pager fits the bill. If you have a mobile office and are on the go a lot, you may want the latest all-in-one device.

Call them "work-style" products.

Consumer electronics used to spread as companies bought them for their employees and insisted they be used, says Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA) in Arlington, Va.

Now individuals are driving the purchases, because the technology helps them be more productive and gives them the ability to telecommute or work flexible hours, he says.

At CEMA, when 10 of the company's employees bought Palm Pilots for themselves, the organization decided to reimburse them and buy additional units for its 90 other workers.

What's next?

As price and size shrink, these devices are likely to merge paging, e-mail, Internet, and PDA functions with voice activation and perhaps small, wearable screens, keyboards, or writing pads, so people can access information -or be accessed -anywhere. Eventually full-motion video and surround sound will come to these devices, says Mr. Shapiro.

And a new technology developed by Ericsson and a consortium of other high-tech companies promises to make wireless devices ubiquitous. Called Bluenose, it aims to permeate electronics and allow different devices to talk to one another.

For example, soda machines could be equipped with the technology, allowing you to use your PDA or cell phone to order a drink, says Ericsson spokesman Ted Browne. The price would then be automatically debited from your bank account over the Internet.

Accelerating the convergence trend, a number of high-tech manufacturers and telecom services took the following steps last month:

*Microsoft and British Telecomm announced a deal to build wireless computers using the software giant's portable Windows CE platform.

*Motorola and America Online inked an agreement to support AOL's Instant Messenger as a wireless software platform.

*Finnish cell-phone giant Nokia announced it would adopt the portable Palm Operating System for its upcoming hand-held PDA/phones.

*Networking hardware manufacturer Cisco Systems announced a coalition with a handful of high-tech firms to dominate standards for wireless communications.

All this new capability proves that Moore's Law still applies: Every 18 months, computing power doubles and price is cut in half.

And what will average consumers want over the next year? Probably some sort of hand-held device that can do e-mail, personal planning, and maybe get text-based information off the Internet, Bane says.

*Send comments to evarts@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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