by Mike Ingle

There has been a lot written about wireless data devices lately. Most of these articles are either thinly veiled ads for a particular device, or content-free promises of the wonders to come. Occasionally someone trashes the whole concept. Rarely does anyone write from the perspective of a wireless user about how to make use of wireless, and what needs to be fixed. Here are my experiences with wireless devices. I am frustrated by some easy-to-fix limitations, so I am going to write about them here.

Palm VII and OmniSky Palms
The Palm VII, along with the similar OmniSky add-ons for Palm devices, is IMHO the best wireless device of its size, i.e. smaller than a laptop but bigger than a pager. The Palm user interface already worked, and Palm added wireless capabilities without breaking anything. Under the circumstances, that was quite an accomplishment. And unlike the cellular companies, they have made no effort to own the customer. You can upload any wireless application you want, without going through their home page to get to it.

This device costs $449, but it replaces a regular Palm, a $3000 in-car navigation system, and a stack of phone books. The built-in wireless apps allow you to find the location and phone number of a business, then get directions from your current location to drive there. This in itself is worth the money for anyone who travels. Unlike the navigation system, it doesn’t display a map, but it does come with you in a rental car. You can also get news, stocks, movie listings, etc. You can send and receive email from a Palm account, and with a third-party free service called ThinAir Mail, you can get to your POP3 mailbox.

The Palm VII uses BellSouth’s narrowband Mobitex data service, while the OmniSky uses CDPD. The OmniSky can run any Web Clipping or TCP/IP Palm app, while the Palm VII can only run Web Clipping apps. The Palm VII has a wider coverage area. Making a Web Clipping app is easy: you create a web page using a subset of HTML, then compile the static front page and all the graphics into a .pqa file. There is almost no learning curve for the developer, so there are lots of web clipping apps.

The device costs from $10 a month for 50KB, up to unlimited for $44.95 a month. Overage is 20c per KB. The killer apps for this device are phone number lookups, directions, and email. If you are a stock watcher, stock prices would also be a killer app. Using the Palm as a newspaper is more (page down) trouble than it (page down) is worth. I got the $24.95 plan for 150KB, then discovered I only needed the 50KB plan. Buy it for the wireless, and you will find yourself using the organizer functions.

The biggest limitation of this device is its inability to beep when you receive email. However, I don’t really want my Palm VII to beep. It is too big to wear; it lives on my desk or in the car. I want my cell phone, which I do wear, to beep and display the From and Subject of my Palm mail. If the message looks interesting, I will go get my Palm and read it. I suggested this to Palm.net and they are considering it. I have tested it with my POP3 account, and it is wonderful – except when I get SPAM and my phone beeps.

Motorola PageWriter 200X
The PageWriter looks like a miniature laptop, with a full keyboard, and it opens up like a laptop. It is about twice the size of a normal pager. This device is quite sophisticated technically, and has a lot of potential – most of which is not being used.

You wear it like a normal pager, and it beeps and displays text messages sent to you from another PageWriter or when you get regular email. You can send an email or text page from the device. By default, it only uses its own mailbox, but there are third-party non-free apps to read corporate mail with it. It receives “datacast” short news briefs, horoscopes, etc. but there is no way to click for more information. There is no way to specify a subject line when sending an email.

I tried one of these devices, but I wouldn’t buy one. It is a separate device that provides the approximate functionality of the European two-way SMS on cellphones. But I already wear a cellphone; I don’t want to wear a second device all the time. And this device beeps when it gets mail, so unlike the Palm, it expects to be worn. It’s too big to be a pager and too small to be anything else.

Like the Palm, you can write applications for the PageWriter. But while the Palm uses simple HTML, the PageWriter requires you to program to a complex C API. This is a real little computer with its own operating system. You load applications from a menu to send, receive, or edit addresses. It can even crash and reboot if there is a bug in the application. For this reason, there is relatively little software for the device, and most of it is not free.

The screen is big for a pager, and shows a reasonable amount of text. You cannot touch type on the keyboard. You either set the device down and use two fingers, or hold it in your hands and use both thumbs. The user interface feels like it was designed for a mouse, with pick lists, and option buttons at the bottom of the screen. But there is no mouse, so you use the Tab key and arrow pad to move around, and Enter to select. It’s a lot like using Windows without a mouse.

There is a calendar and alarm clock, but no interactive wireless services such as yellow pages or directions. This is a pager, not a wireless web device. The cellphone companies should provide two-way SMS, and a wireless data device should provide Internet access.

CDMA data to a laptop
CDMA data provides a wireless 14.4K modem. You buy a cable for your cellphone, which connects directly to your serial port. The phone accepts AT modem commands directly; you do not need a PCMCIA modem. You can use the Internet, send and receive faxes, or dial into any modem-based online service.

I’ve been using CDMA data with a StarTac 7868 phone. It works as advertised: the transfer rate is 1500 bytes per second (FTP) and latency is about 500-600 ms. It’s not fast, but it is reliable (no drops yet) and gets the job done. I successfully tested incoming data calls and faxes.

The cellphone is not actually a modem. It sends digital data to the cellular switch, and the switch sends it to a modem at the cellular office. You can also dial #777 and get a PPP connection to the Internet without going through a modem. This cuts the connect time down below 10 seconds. You do not need any special software. Use Dial-Up Networking and the Generic 19,200 bps Modem. Enable hardware flow control.

You would not want to use this every day, but it comes in very handy for a sysadmin like me. I can just throw the laptop into the trunk and know that if something breaks, I can fix it remotely. Telnet is fast enough. PCanywhere is slow but usable. Mail is okay as long as you avoid attachments. If you use the Web, ad banners will slow you down severely. Text-only sites are very usable.

Airtouch/Verizon treats data minutes exactly like voice minutes, with no extra charges. Check your carrier’s pricing, because some of them are imposing various extra charges. If you have a data-capable phone and a laptop, get the cable. It will come in handy.

Analog data with a modem
Modem makers claim you can connect your cellphone to your PC card modem and send data over analog cellular. In my experience, that does not work. You need a cable that matches both your phone and your modem. The modems do not always link up. When they do, you get about 4800 baud, with periodic hangs while the modems retrain. After a few minutes you usually get dropped. Analog also drains the phone battery.

I have never had any luck with analog data. I do not recommend it unless you are stuck with no other options and want to experiment until you find a method that works. Some cell companies provide a *DATA prefix you dial before the number. The service converts between special cellular modem modulation (built into PC card modems) and landline modulation. This is supposed to improve throughput, but it never worked for me.

WAP and microbrowser phones
Here was a bold idea: put a web browser right into the cell phone. Phone.com has driven the microbrowser concept for several years, and it is finally taking off. If it works, it will be neat. However, there are some severe inherent limitations to the concept. Worse, the companies who built it created a bunch of additional and unnecessary problems which may sink the microbrowser. If you bought one of these phones, you will probably have to buy at least one more phone before it becomes useful.

That which makes a good cell phone is nearly opposite to that which makes a good web browser. A cell phone should be as small as possible. It should be vertically oriented, to reach between your ear and mouth while fitting in your hand. It does not usually have two-dimensional mouse navigation. Its display is smaller than its keypad. Its keypad is always a 4×3 dial pad with some function keys. It does not connect to the network until after you enter the number.

A web browser needs to be wide, because we read from left to right. Its display should be bigger than its keypad. It needs two-dimensional selection to click links. It must stay connected to the network while you are using it. It must have a way to enter text. A Palm device makes a passable microbrowser. A cell phone cannot be a good browser without reducing its desirability as a phone.

Those are the inherent limitations in doing the web on a cellphone, and they might be partly overcome by good design and engineering. But the cellphone makers have built the system in such a way as to prevent this design improvement from happening. A few years ago, web browsers were going through rapid evolution. Every few months a new browser would come out, and sites were frequently broken on old browsers. This was a pain, but downloading a new browser was easy, and we ended up with good browsers. Now that things have stabilized, and it is no longer acceptable for web sites to break old browsers.

Cellphone browsers cannot be upgraded! Millions of phones have been sold with obsolete browser versions in them, and these phones will be in use for many years to come. They are nice phones. They were expensive and still work well. There is no reason for the owners to buy new ones. People building microbrowser sites will have to deal with bad browsers built into good phones for the next five years. That prevents any rapid evolution of the type that created the modern PC web browser.

This is a ridiculous situation. Cellphones, with an always-on link to the network, should have been easy to upgrade. I should just wake up one morning and find my browser upgraded. Cell phone makers could earn a lot of money by selling new features into existing phones. The carriers could earn a fee for delivering the upgrade. They just don’t get it.

My StarTac’s browser has one huge user-interface flaw. The phone has a four-line screen. The bottom line shows icons, leaving three lines of text. But you can only scroll one line at a time! There is no page-down key. That rules out reading anything longer than a few lines. I contacted Phone.com and they said the interface was up to the phone maker. There are plenty of free keys on the phone, such as the mail key. What were they thinking? Did they ever actually use their microbrowser? Most of the other microbrowser phones have the same scrolling problem.

AT&T is selling microbrowser service based on CDPD. They have a limited selection of phones, but the performance is excellent. I tried an Ericsson phone. There is no connect delay, and the response time is less than one second. I have not carried the phone around to see how wide their CDPD coverage is. They had no choice but to use CDPD, because D-AMPS does not support data.

Airtouch/Verizon is charging by the minute, treating Web minutes just like voice minutes. Their performance is okay but slower than AT&T’s. Their home page has one problem: there is no Go To… option to type in a URL. You can type in a bookmark and then visit the bookmark, but there is no way to just enter an address without saving it. I asked them to fix this and they have not responded yet.

Phone.com and the carriers have designed the system so you cannot change your home page. This is a blatant attempt to own the customer. Expect an antitrust suit in a few years. If Microsoft is not permitted to force people to use their browser, cellular companies should not be permitted to force people to use their home page. That is like selling a TV that always tunes itself back to a particular channel each time you turn it on.

Interesting devices I haven’t tried yet
FRS Radios: Improved walkie-talkies with stubby antennas and decent range. The vendors claim two miles, but that is best case in an open area.

Motorola Talkabout two-way pagers: These are smaller versions of the 200X above. They have a full keyboard, and are not much bigger than regular pagers. If they sell the service for $10 a month, this could be a big high-school fad. I would still rather have two-way phone SMS.

Glenayre Access Link II: The smallest device that can send email. It is the same size as a regular pager. You choose from a list of replies, or type one in with arrow keys.

RIM BlackBerry: These handheld devices access your Exchange mail at work. They also support POP3 mail from an ISP. RIM has a new larger-screen version (957) and is talking about WAP support.

CDPD PC cards: plug a card into your laptop and get always-on TCP/IP. The maximum bandwidth is 19.2K, but I have never tried it to see what the real-world performance is. Usage is charged by the byte unless you pay a high rate, usually over $50 a month.

Metricom Ricochet: They have the nicest packet data radio network, but they have never seen fit to expand it beyond a few cities. They are now promising to cover 21 cities soon with 128K always-on bandwidth. They do not charge by the byte. That will be nice if it happens.

Conclusion
The wireless business is a mess right now due to political and business problems. It is much like the online service business before the Internet. There are some neat features available, but nothing is compatible or interconnected very well, and everybody wants to charge by the byte. The online service business didn’t work until the Internet and flat-rate. Something similar needs to happen in wireless. A cellphone with data cable and a Palm VII or Omnisky is my favorite combination right now.

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