Wireless Web and Beyond

by Charlie Schick

The wireless web is the hot topic right now, especially for mobile professionals. Cellular phones have enabled workers to communicate by voice from practically anywhere. Now, the wireless web will enable mobile workers to access, send, and receive data from all over the world, as well. In this article, I'd like to give an overview of the wireless web, what you can do with it, ways to access it, and what it all means.

What is the wireless web?
The wireless web is the extension of the internet to wireless mobile devices, such as cell phones and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants, such as the Palm). What makes the wireless web so appealing is its mobility and immediacy.

There are features of the wireless web that distinguish it from the fixed web. In the fixed web, both bandwidth and client processing power (desktop computers) have increased over the years. And this parallel growth has allowed for the rich experience of the fixed internet.

With the wireless web, bandwidth is increasing slowly while client power is constrained by the generally smaller mobile form factor. Because of this, wireless applications will be different, so don't expect a similar experience with the fixed internet. Fixed internet applications cannot be shoved down a wireless link.

Does that mean the wireless web will be feeble and useless? Not at all. As someone said to me, it's "horses for courses," meaning that one needs to race a horse on a course it is suited for. With the wireless web, then, we need to use applications on the networks they are suited for, be they fixed or wireless.

Videoconferencing, for example, is easy over the fixed internet; high-speed connections, fast digitizing cameras, and TVs are readily available. On the wireless internet, though, connection speeds are too slow for videoconferencing, and the terminals, usually phones or PDAs, won't have much of a screen or image capture capability. Basically, videoconferencing won't be of much use over the wireless internet for some time to come.

What can you do with the wireless web?
The wireless web is good for immediate, portable, and personalized applications. I expect that the bulk of mobile internet applications will center around messaging, which being immediate and portable, takes advantage of the strengths of the wireless web. Messaging is also a highly personalized application, being used primarily for personal and individual communication.

Location-aware applications, where the wireless application knows where the user is physically located and provides geographically relevant information, will be next in popularity, it would seem.

Mobile entertainment and commerce (called m-commerce, the mobile version of e-commerce—basically commerce over wireless networks) will be popular, as well. Other sources of applications will be mobile office apps and telemetry (for utilities and fleet tracking).

Right now, the wireless web is still new. Most applications just provide a "little window" into internet content. We are at the same stage as the fixed internet in 1994—content is being reformatted for the new medium. Soon, we will evolve past this and offer the dynamic applications the wireless web is so well suited for.

These new dynamic applications will take advantage of the unique qualities of the wireless web, such as location awareness and portability. For example, location-based services will provide information specific to the user's location, such as advertisements, travel services, yellow pages, entertainment guides, and emergency services.

How can you get on the wireless web?
In the past year, the ways to get on the wireless web have multiplied. The method you use should be based on the kind of information you would need while away from a PC connected to the fixed internet. Let me list some of the more popular methods:


Web phones These devices are souped-up cell phones that can browse pre-formatted data (via WAP1). You can look up information, such as weather, stocks, or news, and shop at some stores, such as Amazon.com. With some web phones, such as the NeoPoint 2000, you can also check e-mail.


Best suited for: Those who need a minimum level of data connectivity while out of the office.
Offered by: Sprint PCS and AT&T—the two top operators in the U.S. with web phones.
Pros: You only need one device for voice and data.
Cons: You might have to pay by the minute to use the service.


2-way pagers 2-way pagers are like pagers on steroids, bulked up and powerful compared to regular pagers. Most versions can do e-mail, access some web content, and even do instant messaging. They use nationwide 2-way paging networks to send small snippets of info.


Best suited for: Those who require a mobile e-mail solution.
Offered by: Big service providers, such as AOL and Yahoo!. They've created customized versions of the Blackberry for their subscribers.
Pros: Some versions of the devices can be personal organizers (no need for a separate PDA).
Cons: The devices are not designed to add your own applications.


CDPD modems and PDAs There are CDPD2 wireless modems for the Palm V, Handspring Visor, and HP Journada. Because the base device is a PDA, you can install all sorts of programs, such as HTML or WAP browsers, custom wireless business applications, or instant messaging clients.

 

Best suited for: Those who need a versatile wireless platform.
Offered by: OmniSky, and offers the most comprehensive package, but Palm and GoAmerica have similar services.
Pros: Large screen (relative to other devices) and plenty of expandability.
Cons: Requires a separate modem to contend with.

What does this all mean?
The wireless web will enhance communications—voice, text, and images will be accessible from anywhere—and decision-making processes will be pushed out to mobile devices on the edge of the network. It'll help you keep in touch and involved no matter where you are (just remember to turn everything off when you need a break!).

A bit of advice
The future is exciting. Just remember that when deciding how to use the wireless web, start with your immediate needs and then find what is available to help you now. Focus on the present. Don't be dazzled by the hype about always-in-the-future developments. You need to make money now. Use the tools that are available now.

The creators of the wireless web might be coming up with all the wireless applications, but they're really watching you—closely. They need to see how you actually use these applications. In the end, the applications you choose will determine the eventual course of the wireless web. So you see, the wireless web begins with you, the user. Choose wisely.

1WAP - Wireless Access Protocol allows small wireless devices to browse specially formatted data.
2CDPD - Cellular Digital Packet Data is a wireless data network that overlays digital cellular voice networks.