Of Mobile Birth
Good morning. It looks like another busy day of meetings, memos, phone calls and, of course, driving all over town. As you start-and-stop your way down your first freeway of the morning, downloading your first Starbucks Venti of the morning, wouldn't it be great to also be down-loading your e-mail and schedule into your Palm handheld?
Better yet, how about doing it without taking your hands off the steering wheel or your eyes off the oversized SUV in front of you? What if you could tell your Palm to read your e-mail out loud and dictate replies to other team members?
In the future, right? Actually, really mobile computing is already coming your way. Before the end of the year, large retail automotive and consumer electronics out lets should be selling the Com-muniport Mobile Productivity Center for Palm handhelds.
Developed by Delphi Automotive Systems, the Communi-port autosync cradle for the Palm V and VII models translates your voice into lingo the Palm can understand and your stored Palm data into computer-generated speech. It fits in your car's cup holder, pulls juice from the cigarette lighter and links to your cell phone.
The Communiport taps the Internet either through Palm's Palm.Net or your cell phone's wireless service provider. According to Delphi, its price will be up to individual dis-tributors, who will probably slap their own labels on it.
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.
Will Wap Wag The Web?
Wireless Web browsing is taking its first tentative steps, but its potential is huge. According to IDC, as WAP microbrowsers and compatible Web servers proliferate, unlimited Web access will be coming to a PDA, cell phone, laptop, pager-maybe an everyday kitchen appliance-near you. When? IDC figures that within 18 months, there will be more worldwide wireless subscribers capable of Internet access than wired Web browsers.
"Once there are more wireless Internet users than wired users, Webmasters may first consider the needs of the wireless users and, secondly, the wired PC users," predicts IDC vice president Iain Gillott.
Things happen quickly on the Internet. It's not only driving growth for PDAs and phones, but also driving their architectures toward one another. For example, Nokia is licensing the Palm OS for its new generation of Internet-capable smart phones. Palm's easy-to-use interface code and PDA applications will be integrated with the Epoc phone operating system from Psion. In addition to traditional phone services and new voice technology from Nokia, the phones will include a Palm interface and Palm-like stylus for use with most of Palm's many existing applications.
The question is, will cell phones start looking like PDAs or PDAs like cell phones? Maybe we're headed for a hybrid such as Kyocera's pdQ, an oversized smart phone that runs Palm applications. "People will passionately argue for one or the other, but frankly, nobody has a clue how this will play out," says Mace. "Personally, I think more people will want a two-piece solution-connecting their Palm to their cell phone so they don't have to replace one when they replace the other."
As the leader in the area of handheld computing, Palm's decisions matter. With more than 6 million handhelds served, it's sitting on an incredible 78 percent of the remote computing market, according to IDC.
A Little Help . . .
Like Apple Computer, Palm started life as a hardware-maker whose real strength was its operating system. Now it's become a platform developer licensing its software to third-party hardware- and software-makers, much as Microsoft does with its Windows CE/Pocket PC operating system. Palm has signed up more than 80,000 developers-about 15,000 in just the past couple of months.
So far, Microsoft boasts about 60 partners for its new Windows CE/Pocket PC platform and has pretty much the same game plan as Palm for wireless handheld expansion. It will support the whole gamut of solutions-built-in transceivers, clip-on modems, cell phone-to-PDA cables, add-in cards-and let customers do the choosing, says Rebecca Thompson, product manager for Microsoft Mobile Devices.
Already, infrared-equipped handhelds and cell phones can create a dial-up connection between the phone and PDA if they are carefully lined up. But soon the Bluetooth protocol will make wireless transfers between local devices bulletproof. This transceiver chipset, due to become standard issue in desktops as well as handhelds starting this winter, works at up to 30 feet.
Ericsson already offers Bluetooth-equipped phones, and other cell phone-makers can simply add it to their batteries. Size and cost make Bluetooth a tougher fit for handhelds, says Mace, so Palm will rely on those third-parties in the near-term. Some time early next year, Palm will introduce new models including a slot for the new postage-stamp-sized secure digital cards, which will eventually store as much as 256MB of data or provide Bluetooth or other I/O functionality. This fall, it will ship the $50 (street) Palm Mobile Internet Kit to connect Palm III and Palm V models to mobile phones via an infrared link or a separately sold cable. Similarly, Microsoft will rely on Socket Commu-nications, which plans a winter release of a $99 (street) CompactFlash card as a wireless replacement for its Digital Phone Card that now links Pocket PCs and phones by cable.
You Talkin' To Me?
By first quarter 2001, Bluetooth cards should join hundreds of other add-ons already being sold through online catalogs such as iGo and Hand-ango-and even Amazon.com. Not too far behind are voice command/synthesis products which will initially be sold by third parties like Delphi to customers willing to pay extra.
For example, with the Communiport and the right wireless service, you can use your driving time to dictate a quick thank-you note to your last client, schedule a meeting with the next or download driving directions. When traffic really shuts down, there's the latest news headlines or a quick call to your online broker.
Once Bluetooth arrives, some hand-helds will get voice capabilities just by borrowing them from cell phones like the NeoPoint NP1000. Why reinvent the wheel? Already, Phone.com is trying to blend Conversa's voice technology with its UP.Browser for voice navigation of the Web.
It's all so new and volatile that it's hard to see very far down the road. But those headlights up ahead on the horizon? That's really mobile computing coming on fast.
Where in the world do you want to go wirelessly today? How about these sites?
Palm.Net Wireless Service