You've taken baby steps into the wireless world, with a remote control in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Now it's time to cut the digital umbilical completely. Want to surf the Internet and catch up with your e-mail while sitting in your backyard, or during your daily commute? We can do that. Have your handheld organizer automatically updated with your latest appointments, contacts and e-mail whenever you walk into the office? OK -- we can do that, too. And how about climbing into your car, cell phone tucked in your pocket, and using it as a hands-free phone while driving -- without stuffing the phone into a cradle or attaching a cable? Well, that's not ready quite yet, but the technology to make it happen in the near future is here today.
connected wherever you wander
The key technology here is something called Bluetooth (named after tenth-century Viking king Harald Bluetooth, in case that's ever a Final Jeopardy answer). Basically, Bluetooth is a standard for low-power radio transmitter/receivers (with roughly a 30-foot range) that speak the same digital language, paving the way for phones, PDAs, laptop and desktop computers, cameras, cars and more that can easily exchange information. In less high-falutin terms, it's a way to do what you'd now accomplish with cables, but without the cables.
Losing the cables can make a big difference. For instance, you could just carry your laptop computer to any old printer in your home or office and print a document. Sit at a conference table with a few folks carrying laptop computers and PDAs and share files with one another -- watch a PowerPoint presentation, for example, and save your own copy instead of furiously jotting down notes. Bluetooth also enables hands-free cell phone headsets that really work well for a change, and will power the cell phone/car phone combo mentioned above, as soon as the car manufacturers get their act together.
Bluetooth technology is likely to become widespread in the next few years, since supporters and codevelopers include everyone from Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia on the cell phone side to IBM, Intel and Microsoft. And the reason the technology hasn't already become widespread, given the three-year-long festival of hype surrounding it? Well, all the biggest names in digital are on board, and they all have their own axes to grind in pursuit of a "standard."
So what we have now is a nonstandard standard -- a lot of products that theoretically speak the same language, but have trouble understanding one another because each manufacturer uses a different idiosyncratic dialect.
One area where Bluetooth communication is already well established doesn't require mixing gear from different vendors -- making the connection between a cell phone and a wireless earpiece. If you buy a Bluetooth-equipped cell phone from Motorola along with a Motorola Bluetooth earpiece, for instance, you're going to have an excellent experience -- the sound is as clear as the proverbial bell and, if the phone has voice-dialing capability, you won't even have to pick it up to dial or answer an incoming call -- sweet! If you like the cell phone you already have, keep an eye on the folks at Plantronics (www.plantronics.com). Their M1500 Bluetooth headset, which sells for about $200, includes a small adapter that connects to a standard cellular headphone jack plus a comfortable over-the-ear headset -- the preproduction version I tested recently worked like a charm.
Letting computers communicate wirelessly with other devices -- laptops, PDAs, etc. -- is a work in progress, however. Each manufacturer of Bluetooth-enabled gear currently has to go through product compatibility testing, and most post the results on their Web site. If you let these listings be your guide, you can accomplish some neat technological tricks. Going beyond these lab-tested combinations has worked for me sometimes, but not consistently. For example, I'm carrying a Compaq iPaq 3870 Pocket PC handheld organizer, the first to ship with Bluetooth built in. I'm also using a Compaq notebook computer, the Evo N600c, outfitted with its optional Bluetooth MultiPort module. When the two devices are in the same room, they find each other and exchange information (appointments, contacts, incoming e-mail) automatically, and I feel like a Master of Technology. When I tried to convince the iPaq to converse with another laptop equipped with 3Com's Bluetooth adapter card, though, it was close but no cigar (so to speak).
Despite the technology's current limbo status, I'm a Bluetooth believer. Hewlett-Packard is now shipping a Bluetooth-equipped printer, and other companies are developing add-on devices that will let you add Bluetooth communication to existing printers. Laptops with built-in Bluetooth are now available, and car manufacturers are pursuing Bluetooth projects for upcoming model years. Respected industry analyst Tim Bajarin expects Bluetooth to make it into the mainstream in early 2003. "You will see more devices rolled out throughout the year," he explains. "But in projects I'm working on with cell phone vendors, handheld vendors and laptop manufacturers, the road map calls for all of their units to have Bluetooth built in starting in 2003." In the meantime, early adopters (myself included) can amaze their friends with the cool wireless tricks we can perform, as long as we buy carefully.
proven compatibility at why-not prices
Anyone who's worked in an office environment knows about LANs-the technology that lets a group of computers share files, printers and Internet connections. When you make the jump from standard plug-in-the-cable local area networks to a high-speed wireless connection, though, you fundamentally change your digital lifestyle. Now you can work where you want to work, and not just in the office -- grab a seat in an airport, hotel or Starbucks where a wireless network has been installed and -- bang -- you're online.
Unless you live alone, several people under your home roof probably like to get on the Internet at the same time -- that calls for multiple computers linked by a LAN. But you don't have to start stringing cables to create one -- using wireless LAN technology, all the computers in your home can share and share alike without messing with the walls at all.
And if, like me, you have a laptop computer and a tree-lined porch, you can tap away at your keyboard without suffering the indoor claustrophobia that fueled Jack Nicholson's insane literary efforts in The Shining. You can even play games between computers scattered all over the house. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play....
Unlike Bluetooth, wireless networking technology is well established, compatibility is rarely an issue, and prices have already come down to why-not levels. The key wireless communication standard here is called 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi. A faster version, dubbed 802.11a, is also hitting the market, but 802.11b is speedy enough for now, and a whole lot less expensive.
Two essential components are needed to set up a Wi-Fi network. One is a wireless access point that serves as a hub for the network. It connects to the Internet via cable, DSL or even a dial-up modem and serves as a traffic cop for all the other devices on your network, letting them share the Internet connection and talk to one another. You may have heard of the AirPort device from Apple Computer -- that was one of the first access points designed for home use. Today, wireless access points are available from a wide variety of manufacturers. I've been running my own home network for nearly two years with nary a ripple through the HomePortal 100W from 2Wire ($399, www.2wire.com). I recently tested another solution, the Wireless-Ready Multimedia Home Gateway from Actiontec ($200, including wireless card, www.actiontec.com) and found it both easy to set up and reliable.
Second, you need a wireless adapter for each computer you add to the network. For notebook computers, that's usually a PC card that slips into the external expansion slot. For a desktop computer, you can just use an inexpensive Ethernet cable if the computer's in the same room as the access point. If not, choose a wireless adapter that connects to your computer through the USB port -- that way, you don't have to open the computer to install the adapter. For laptops or desktops, you'll find plenty of sources for 802.11b wireless adapters, all selling for around $100. I've used products from Actiontec,
D-Link (www.dlink.com) and Agere's Orinoco line (www.agere.com), mixing and matching them on the same network with good results. Yet another possibility, if you're shopping for a new laptop: buy one with an 802.11b adapter already built in. You remember that Bluetooth-equipped Compaq Evo N600c I mentioned earlier? The Bluetooth module can easily be swapped out and replaced with an 802.11b adapter. Other laptops are shipping with internal 802.11b cards and antennae that are built into their lids -- that big antenna gives them a reception advantage over stubby add-on card options. Recently I've been keyboarding along with a new Toshiba Satellite Pro 6100, which, in addition to having some of the most beautiful graphics I've ever seen on a laptop computer, also boasts built-in wireless networking.
While it's still a spotty proposition, you may also be able to use your 802.11b-equipped laptop to hop onto the Internet while traveling. The Starbucks coffee chain took the lead in this endeavor, equipping hundreds of its stores with wireless Internet access points available to T-Mobile Broadband (formerly MobileStar) subscribers for $30 a month (www.tmobilebroadband.com). A competitor called Boingo Wireless (www.boingo.com), with 500 "hot spots" at hotels, coffee shops and airports across the country and funding from Sprint, started service in January.
faster systems headed our way
A few years back, the cell phone companies told us all a big lie -- that the so-called wireless Web was going to replace our computers with phones that could display information a few words at a time on a gray LCD screen. Wrong! But while that initial effort was an irritating fiasco, the concept of a true wireless Web is already a reality today, and growing more compelling month by month.
First let's doff our caps to the now-venerable RIM BlackBerry devices, both the pocket-sized Rim 850 and 950 and the bigger-screened Rim 857 and 957. These slender über-handhelds with their funky little thumb-typeable keyboards let you send and receive e-mail from just about anywhere -- and really, isn't that Job One when it comes to wireless information? Recently, Palm retired its own long-standing wireless handheld product, the Palm VIIx, in favor of the sleeker new Palm i705. The key difference: like the BlackBerry, the i705 is always on, so your messages show up in your mobile inbox automatically (with the VIIx, you had to go online and fetch messages periodically).
There are many other wireless e-mail solutions on the market today-antenna-equipped cards that you insert in your laptop and so-called sleds that cradle your handheld organizer to provide a wireless connection. GoAmerica (www.goamerica.com) is a good nationwide source for these add-on devices. What they all have in common, though, is a lack of speed. The tried-and-true data networks poke along at a leisurely pace-somewhere between 9 Kbps and 14 Kbps (to give you a benchmark, a standard dial-up modem communicates at about 40 to 45 Kbps). Now, though, we're seeing the next wave of wireless communication from cellular carriers across the country. I asked industry analyst Andrew Seybold, editor in chief of "Forbes/Andrew Seybold's Wireless Outlook" newsletter, to give us an overview:
"We've got packet data networks coming online from AT&T, Cingular, VoiceStream and Verizon [Wireless], and by the middle of the year, you'll have Sprint PCS up and running," Seybold explains. "Data speeds will run anywhere from 20 Kbps to 50 Kbps. There are going to be lots of different devices on the market -- this is not going to be a one-device-fits-all type of thing. So we're going to see the whole gamut, from a phone that has a Web browser in it (which to me is a losing product) to PC cards that go into notebooks, a number of smartphones, and a number of PDAs that also have voice capability. We'll see more devices that have keyboards on them. So there will be lots of network devices, and here's my caveat -- the networks today have priced data so that it's not affordable by the mere mortal. AT&T's price is $10 per megabyte; Verizon's price is $30/month plus a per-minute charge. Right now, when I stay at a hotel, I use a dial-up connection on my notebook. I did the math on that -- if I were using Verizon, I'd be paying 10 times as much for the privilege of using wireless. Why would I do it?
"The bottom line," according to Seybold, "is we've got the networks, we've got the devices, and then the pricing is too high. I can't imagine one of your readers going out and spending $500 on a device to look up where the nearest cigar store is. We're at a crossroads here: we've got the technology in place and we're going to have to struggle to figure out what to do with it."
But as we struggle to figure out what to do with the new networks launching in 2002, even faster 3G (or third-generation) systems are headed our way. As Tim Bajarin explains, "3G really suggests that you can get to 384 Kbps, and 1x [the technology used by Verizon and Sprint\] actually tops out at 144 Kbps. Initially, as the networks are set up, you're not going to get more than 40 to 60 Kbps, but we do believe they can meet their upper-end limits of 144 Kbps by the end of the year.
"The next step on top of that is CDMA 1xEV," he continues "That's the next tier, which should take you to at least 384 Kbps, and could go up as high as 2.4 megabits [2,400 Kbps]. But we don't see that any time in the next year to year and a half at least. The earliest we'll see the EV networks online is late 2003, more likely 2004, and even then I expect limited coverage, probably on the east and west coasts, at first."
As for me, the Verizon folks were nice enough to lend me an AirCard 555 wireless modem and set me loose on their network in New York. I'm sitting on a bench on 57th Street, reading my e-mail, checking news headlines and filling downtime between appointments by doing research for an upcoming article. I hear a familiar song playing in a store ("Will you still love me tomorrow...") and Web-surf over to CDNOW to figure out who first recorded it (the Shirelles -- of course!). Bolstered by this combination of serious inquiry and frivolous self-indulgence, surfing the Web wirelessly at decent speeds turns out to be fairly addictive stuff. Andy Seybold's right -- I'm not quite ready to pay the freight for the privilege. But one look at what happened to cellular service prices in the past few years gives me hope that even lowly journalists will be surfing on air before long.
Steve Morgenstern, a freelance writer living in New York, writes often on technology issues for Cigar Aficionado.