By now, we've become accustomed-maybe even a little addicted-to wireless communications on our cell phones. Wireless computing over the Internet is bound to be just as popular, say analysts, once we work out the details of crunching Web pages down into small PDA and cell phone displays.
IDC predicts that U.S. unit shipments of wireless consumer information appliances-like PDAs and gaming consoles-will climb from 11 million units today to about 89 million units by 2004. And even more people will use cell phones for Internet data services: IDC expects the number to jump from a mere 60,000 Americans today to 94 million by 2004-and 560 million users worldwide. Small wonder that cell phone and PDA-makers alike are high on wireless data access-none more so than handheld leader Palm.
"We think wireless capability is the next big thing," says Palm's chief competitive officer Michael Mace. "We're working to bring wireless capability into all Palm handhelds as quickly as we can."
Expect built-in wireless connectivity to be a part of all future Palm OS hand- helds, says Mace, including new releases next year. Some will come from new Palm partners like Sony, which, by this Christmas, will release its first Palm handheld with a slot for its own chewing-gum-sized memory sticks.
Handheld-OS-makers Microsoft, Palm and Psion are also busy swapping technology with wireless voice experts like Ericsson, Kyocera, Motorola and Nokia, who are anxious to add Internet browsing and PIM features to their coming generation of "smart" cell phones.
Currently, though, your browsing is pretty much limited to Web pages specially formatted for handhelds. For example, Palm VII owners are required to subscribe to Palm.Net wireless service and can only download pages from the 350-plus sites that support the browserless Palm's "Web clipping" protocol.
Owners of the Palm V and Palm Vx can branch out by buying OmniSky's $299 (street) Minstrel V wireless modem and subscribing to its new wireless service. OmniSky opens up most of the Web by stripping pages of large graphics and banner ads, but only 1,000 or so Web sites really fit the Palm display. Still, those include popular sites like Yahoo! and Amazon.com.
Similarly, handhelds derived from Microsoft's Windows CE/Pocket PC operating system can use the built-in Pocket Internet Explorer microbrowser to surf any Web site. But the experience isn't that gratifying unless your destination is a page on Microsoft's MSN network or other partner sites whose servers optimize Web site content for display on Pocket PCs.
One of the early movers in providing Web browsing to both Pocket PC and Palm owners is AvantGo. Subscribers to wireless services other than Palm.Net are allowed by a free AvantGo account to browse and download Web pages from any Web site. The AvantGo portal massages any site's data a little for handheld display. But those downloads are nothing compared to the news, stock quotes and other content and applications you get from the 400 or so AvantGo channels that have optimized their Web pages.
Phone.com is at the hub of providing cell phone users wireless computing. A co-developer of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) for Web data display, Phone.com licenses its WAP-compatible UP.Browser or UP.Link server to major wireless carriers such as Sprint and AT&T. They, in turn, use Phone.com's software to make Web pages palatable to phone displays.