A need for speed

Today's convergence devices represent the beginning of the "third generation" of wireless, says communications consultant William Bane.

But the third generation is less a fundamental change in technology as it is an increase in speed that will change the way people use hand-held devices. They can, in theory, surf the Web (though so far in very limited ways), and will be able to send pictures and other files.

A little history for comparison: First-generation wireless technology - analog signals -gave us radio broadcasting, television, and early cellular telephones.

Second-generation wireless - using digital signals -is now overtaking analog in cellular telephones, pagers, and, soon, television. It allows people to send and receive data, as well as voice communications -short e-mails, and even play interactive games.

With current digital technology, however, data speeds are still too slow, for instance, to transmit graphics-intensive Web pages or to e-mail pictures. For now, advanced-wireless devices - two-way pagers, combination cellular telephone-personal digital assistants - access the Internet through "Web clipping" services. These services locate and send topic-specific text from the Web to wireless users at their request.

Web surfing, however, is not yet an option, and graphics don't show up, because the fastest wireless connection today is about 9,600 bits per second, says Mr. Bane.

While connection speeds over the next few years will be up to twice as fast as today's, they will only be 1/10th as fast as today's best land-line connections.

And that may not be enough.

"People have always cared a lot about response times," says Bane. Third-generation-wireless speeds should make the Web about as fast as it was on state-of-the-art desktop PCs five years ago. "It's hard for me to imagine how many people want to go forward in mobility and back in speed," he says.

It's also questionable whether people will be willing to use tiny screens and keyboards on the run.

Of course, there are social implications of carrying the Internet everywhere, too. "People tend to overestimate the impact technology advances will have in the near term, and underestimate the long term," Bane says.

Only a few early-adopters are willing to overcome social barriers to new technology at first. But as the capability -and the interruptions - of wireless devices become more commonplace, more people begin to accept them. And as speeds go up, history shows, people will use this technology in unexpected new ways that expand use even further.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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