The future has arrived

Science fiction has been remade as science fact at the CeBIT 2000 trade show in Hanover, Germany. I saw a man with a wristwatch cellphone. I saw a palmtop device that hooked into the GPS system and directed the user to the nearest bar.

Science fiction has been remade as science fact at the CeBIT 2000 trade show in Hanover, Germany. I saw a man with a wristwatch cellphone. I saw a palmtop device that hooked into the GPS system and directed the user to the nearest bar. I saw a lightweight headset that gave the user the illusion of having a 40-inch monitor floating in space at arms length. I saw attack ships on fire off the arm of Orion.

Okay, the last one's not strictly true, but if the gadgets are anything to go by the future is about to fall on us from a high height and I for one can't wait.

The overwhelming theme of the show, if a show with over 7500 vendors can have a single theme, was mobile Internet access. I've been a tad sceptical of the claims that we'll all be surfing the Net from our cellphones as we stroll around town or sit in airport lounges, but this last week has convinced me that there is a place for mobile Internet access. I'm not saying we'll see full Internet access via a cellphone - that would be foolish in the extreme. Who wants to peer at pages on a screen that size, loading at the blistering speed of 9.5 Kbit/s? Not I for one. I find it frustrating putting up with this dial-up connection that I'm on at the moment. Give me LAN speed or give me TV, I say.

But that's not what mobile Internet is about. It's not a full-service package in the way surfing from a PC is. Instead, new services and offerings will be developed to take advantage of the wave of cell- phones, palmtops and associated devices that will be bursting on to the market in the next 12 months.

Ericsson, for example, wants to provide you with your next credit card. You've already got one, in fact - it's your cellphone and the security issues surrounding e-commerce payments have already been solved. Your SIM card already provides a layer of encryption so hopefully no one can listen in on your GSM call. The new WAP-enabled (Wireless Application Protocol) phones will allow a user to walk into a store and receive information from the store's intranet on specials, ingredients, accessories or whatever you need. Once you have worked out just what it is you want, you can pay by simply pressing the button on your phone. Your credit card can be debited with the amount, or your Eftpos account if you prefer, whatever payment method you decide. It's a way of taking e-commerce off the PC and back into the store.

Further to that principle is the idea of location-based services. These use your cellphone's connection to the network to work out just where you are and to target services directly at you. If you ask your phone where the nearest caf‚ is at lunchtime it will be able to tell you, and also add in the contact details for a taxi service to take you there, negotiate a discount based on your love of sauvignon blanc (a detail which your phone will already know) and could even go as far as to reserve a table for you based on the estimated travel time from your current location - taking into account traffic delays of course.

If that all sounds far-fetched, it is. Three things need to happen to get us to that kind of level - we'll need phones that can handle WAP and high-speed connectivity; content providers who can offer the kind of deals targeted at specific customers and a new billing model from the ISP/cellular companies to encourage that kind of casual browsing.

These things take time to organise and there's always the problem of what to set-up first - the classic chicken or the egg scenario. Ericsson's CEO prefers to wait for the market to catch up before launching mass-market data-enabled cellphones - he says the company could produce them now but chooses not to.

Meanwhile Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia are all hard at work encouraging content providers to jump on the bandwagon - the banking sector is being courted vociferously - so users will have something to download to their new phones.

All in all it's going to be a very interesting year for in telecommunications industry.

Brislen travelled to CeBIT courtesy of Ericsson.

Paul Brislen is a regular columnist and reporter for Computerworld. Phone him on: 0-9-302 8751

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