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PC World

The wireless world becomes useful in 2000


January 4, 2000
Web posted at: 10:22 a.m. EST (1522 GMT)

by David Essex

(IDG) -- Web-enabled smart phones and personal digital assistants are popping up everywhere, but making these devices useful is no easy job. Building the complex infrastructure wireless gadgets require will be job one in 2000 for many high-tech heavyweights, including Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Nokia.

Smart phones got a credibility boost in 1999 when 1200-plus companies signed on to the Wireless Application Protocol, a standard for transmitting and reformatting Web data for the small screens of cell phones and PDAs. Mobile phone vendors Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia all started shipping their first WAP phones.

Get ready for WAP

Smart cell phones

"If 1999 saw the introduction of some very early offerings, the year 2000 will be a confluence of a ton of these devices," says Bob Egan, vice president and research director at Gartner Group.

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Also expected, says Egan, are cellular modems that fit entirely into a PC card, an improvement on today's bulkier modems.

But the more important trend will be the introduction of WAP network hardware and services designed to deliver meaningful content (think tailored news feeds), while also managing security issues.

Though WAP has gained impressive momentum, standardization issues remain, notably a merging of WAP with XML-based proposals from the World Wide Web Consortium, an Internet governing body. "WAP is sort of wireless duct tape," Egan says.

Egan says significant progress on "morphing" the two standards won't come before the end of next year. In December, Microsoft released a new version of Mobile Internet Explorer that supports both HTML and WAP. Ericsson said it would employ the new microbrowser and work with Microsoft to merge the WAP and XML standards.

Biting at Bluetooth

Also figuring prominently in the emerging Web phone picture will be Bluetooth, a standard for low-power, wireless radio transmissions up to 30 feet (300 feet with amplification). Bluetooth has hundreds of big-name supporters, including some WAP leaders.

Bluetooth is touted as a means of synching wireless devices with other handhelds and office equipment, and as a replacement for serial and parallel cables between PCs and peripherals. It also supports small-area point-to-multipoint networks among wireless devices.

"It's basically replacing the cord," says Joyce Putscher, director of converging markets and technologies at Cahners In-Stat Group.

Though Bluetooth is intended to achieve eventual ubiquity with small, cheap connection hardware that fits inside almost any device, the first wave of Bluetooth devices will be relatively expensive.

Bluetooth products will soon trickle forth. In November, Ericsson demonstrated a headset that connects wirelessly to cell phones, and Widcomm showed a modem for Handspring's Visor PDA. Both are expected by mid-2000.

Putscher says TDK will ship Bluetooth PC cards, Universal Serial Bus ports, and Compact Flash modems by the second quarter. Toshiba will introduce Portege notebooks outfitted for Bluetooth and 3Com will have sub-$100 PC card modems in the first half of the year. By the end of 2000, Putscher says, Proxim will release a PC card that supports both Bluetooth and the competing HomeRF wireless networking standard.

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