A wireless day

It's a simple idea - to go out and see what can be done with wireless devices on a day around New Zealand's biggest city, Auckland. What services can you access when you're away from your desk, away, even, from a laptop?

It's a simple idea – to go out and see what can be done with wireless devices on a day around New Zealand's biggest city, Auckland. What services can you access when you’re away from your desk, away, even, from a laptop?

One of Computerworld’s overseas sister publications did a similar exercise a couple of months ago, and its reporter had no difficulty shopping, finding places to eat and buying movie tickets with nothing more than a Palm Vx, a wireless modem and a cellphone. The trouble is, she was in New York, a city that is plainly far more thoroughly connected than Auckland. Nevertheless, we contacted various distributors, arranged for an assortment of mobile devices to be sent out, and waited for the products to converge on the Computerworld office.

5.58am: The first act of my wireless day – my Macintosh computer wakes itself up, as it does every workday morning, calls up my ISP on its dial-up modem, and downloads my email. This all happens while I sleep – I have a foolish idea that I should, if I need to, be able to spring into work without pausing to turn the computer on. It may happen one day. Note that this is seriously old-fashioned technology – the Mac isn’t very new, and I haven’t budgeted for a DSL connection yet.

7.25am: My clock radio succeeds in waking me up. Checking my email I am disappointed to discover that the day’s toys will not include much in the way of wireless devices. Wireless modems for PDAs can be ordered in specially, but currently they are out of stock.

This is unfortunate, particularly since I know this technology can be made to work in places far more isolated than Auckland. Earlier in the week I attended the 50K ski race at of Coronet Peak in Queenstown; Compaq's timing of competitors was done wirelessly, with a server and transmitter/receiver system near the finish line, a relay halfway up and a transceiver at the start. Compaq’s specially written software at the server collated the data produced by nine teams racing all night, broadcasting this not only to the greater internet but also to a dozen Compaq employees with iPaq PDAs. In theory they could be approached at any time and asked for the scores, but the sensible ones learned that in the freezing temperatures on the mountain it was wiser to stay inside with the iPaq stowed in a ski jacket pocket, despite the bulky wireless modem and its protruding aerial.

Unfortunately I am not able to be as well connected. I’ve been enjoying the use of a Handspring Visor Prism PDA for some months, and my fallback plan if a wireless modem isn’t available is to borrow a Visorphone, the plug-in module that converts any Handspring Visor into a GSM telephone. (Visor-speak: Handspring is the company founded by Jeff Hawkins, original designer of the Palm, the Palm OS and the Graffiti text recogniser; Visor is the line of PDAs Handspring makes; Prism is the 8Mb colour screen model; and Springboard is the name of the expansion slot that all Visors have.) Alas, the Visorphone is still awaiting approval for use in New Zealand, which is estimated to to take another month. In the mean time, local Handspring distributor Brightpoint has a collection of modules I might like to try out.

7.55am: I connect my Prism to its cradle and synchronise it with my computer. As well as synching my appointments and addresses, it also initiates a connection with the internet to download an assortment of newspaper pages, courtesy of avantgo.com. Avant Go is a web-based service that has signed up newspaper and other content providers around the world to make specially formatted versions of their online publications available for PDAs. The software is included with current Pocket PC devices, while versions for Palm OS devices and even some WAP-enabled telephones can be downloaded from Avant Go’s website. If you’re in a well-connected city – like New York – it is possible to have the latest news constantly transmitted to your Palm VII wireless PDA from your preferred news provider.

For the rest of the world, a daily download should be the equivalent of picking up the paper on the way to work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always function that well; Avant Go’s Palm software is buggy and doesn’t always synchronise (although it does on this occasion – it seems to depend on the time of day and presumably net traffic). Another disadvantage is that nobody in New Zealand seems to be producing Avant Go content. But I’ll settle for reading the main stories from the Guardian, the New York Times and The Australian’s IT section.

9.20am: A courier arrives with a small parcel of Visor trinkets (most of which have not been released in New Zealand yet and for which prices are not available). These include a My-Vox digital voice recorder, which might come in handy for recording notes and interviews; a Soundsgood AudioPlayer, for playing MP3 recordings; an Eyemodule2 plug-in digital camera; and a Margi Presenter-to-go.

Sorting through them, I immediately realise that I am not going to use the Presenter-to-go, although it’s a lovely device. It converts PowerPoint presentations into a special format that can be stored on a Visor. There is a cable to connect to a TV or data projector, and a little remote control unit. It’s far more portable than a laptop if you need to give a presentation, and in the demonstration I’ve seen on an earlier occasion it appeared to work as promised.

The My-Vox turns out to be less attractive than I had hoped; its microphone doesn’t have much range, and it only has eight minutes recording time. I need at least 30 minutes for this to be useful.

The Soundsgood AudioPlayer is much nicer. Someone at Brightpoint has thoughtfully loaded it with an assortment of pumping house beats, the sort of music I don’t want to listen to, but it plays though earphones with excellent clarity. It also demonstrates a feature of Handspring’s hardware – when a module is plugged in to the Springboard expansion slot, the Visor will automatically turn itself on and load any needed software from the module’s ROM.

The AudioPlayer also has external track and volume controls so that it can be used independently of a Visor, with an accessory powerpack; nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine the AudioPlayer being bought by people who don’t already own Visors and PCs – how else are you going to load the MP3s into it?

Finally, the EyeModule2 camera is kind-of neat. It’s a long way from a digital Nikon - the picture quality produced by its non-focussing, non-zooming lens is deplorable, but that’s okay – my Visor Prism with half its memory free has enough room to store over a hundred low-res pictures, and it can also record five-second movie clips or time lapse sequences. Best of all, the Prism doesn’t look like a camera when it’s in use, so it’s ideal for jotting inconspicuous visual notes. I took dozens of pictures during the day.

10.35am: Enough play. My Prism reminds me I have a meeting at 11.00am. I pack my bag with two other devices – my old Palm V and its conventional modem and collapsible keyboard, and a Palm IIIc with an attached Navman global positioning system. I may not be connected to the network, but with the Navman at least I am connected to a network – the US military’s collection of navigation satellites.

It’s a ridiculous collection – I’m as big an enthusiast for mobile devices as anyone, but I’ve never carried three around at once. What it indicates is that there’s still some way to go before there’s agreement on connection standards for these things, although progress is being made. The latest Palms, like the Visors and Pocket PCs, have settled on USB connections for desktop synchronisation, and are using the postage-stamp size SD card format for both memory and other expansion devices; with luck this will become a standard for PDAs, although it’s a shame that this is yet another plug-in memory format to join compact flash RAM, smart RAM and Sony memory sticks on the market. For now, I can happily hot-swap modules on the Prism, but the other gadgets are separate islands of utility.

The best I can do for communication between them is beam data via infrared. That’s not too bad – Palm OS devices play well together over IR, as I discover by swiping a (public domain) game for my Prism from the Navman’s Palm IIIc. The Palms will also communicate with Pocket PCs using software most PPC makers are now including with their machines, and – even more usefully – with IRDA cellphones. My cunning backup plan had been to achieve connectivity via Palm’s Mobile Internet Kit, a set of downloadable tools for $US39.95. Ideally, the MIK lets you put your Palm device (with Palm OS 3.5 or later) next to an IRDA mobile phone with their IR ports aligned, and drive the phone from the Palm. This scheme comes unstuck when I discover that for some reason my phone, a Nokia 7110, is one of the few that won’t connect via its IR port. According to Palm it only works with an accessory connecting cable. Is one available for a Visor Prism? Apparently not.

11am to 5pm: I’m addicted to PDAs and I can’t get by without one – one, not three. The range of software available for the Palm gives it the edge over the more powerful Pocket POC platform and the Springboard modules for the Visors help to narrow the hardware gap. But compared to the US, our access to useful mobile software is seriously limited. For form’s sake I check the weather via WAP on my Nokia 7110, and as usual am struck by the slowness of the system and the paucity of local services available. If WAP was always-on and without charge to the user it might be different, but I suspect we’ll wait for the next generation in wireless technology, with high speed and colour screens, before that happens.

I don't find myself using a Pocket PC device at any time, but there’s no doubt that the hardware of these devices is superior to that of Palm OS systems like the Handspring Visor and the Palm. What is more debatable is whether Microsoft and the Pocket PC licensees properly understand PDAs – Palm OS device are intended to be auxiliary to desktop PCs, and are therefore much simpler. The many accessories available for the Visor and the latest M-series Palms suggests the architecture may be easier to design for, too. Nevertheless, Palms are handicapped by their slower processors; Palm has officially announced that it will be switching to StrongARM RISC processors in a couple of years, at which point it should be competitive with the processing power of PPCs. You’ll note that PPCs don’t need plug-in MP3 players or voice recorders; they can do that stuff in software.

The one time I feel stirred by the potential of wireless is when I try out Talon Technology’s Navman GPS system. I use it to solve one of the great Auckland mysteries – what is the optimum route from Ponsonby to Point Chevalier? Inevitably this journey involves a drive down Meola Road, but the maze of little streets before that has been a puzzle to me for years. With the Navman plugged in to my car’s lighter socket and an Auckland map loaded into the memory of the attached Palm IIIc, I am able to constantly compare my position on the map with the maze of streets; true, I would have been less dangerous to other drivers had I taken a human navigator with me to do this, but the principle is sound. The Navman not only plots your course on its zoomable, scrollable charts, it can also display details on streets and some landmarks; it’s made in New Zealand but exported everywhere and costs $689 not including GST. You’ll have to provide your own Palm, though, and a model to fit the new Palm M505 isn’t due until October.

Over the next few days I see more of the things that would really make mobile productive: Nabeel Youakim, Citrix’s managing director for Asia Pacific, is in town and shows me a Nokia 9210 running a version of Citrix ICA for Symbian-alliance EPOC devices. Due for release here in October, the Nokia 9210 is the sleekest version of Nokia’s keyboard-incorporating models, slightly too large for comfortable pocketability but highly attractive despite that. With Citrix’s software, the 9210 can provide a pannable window onto a Windows 2000 desktop practically anywhere. Citrix has had years to perfect its act; it only sends change events to and from the client device, so its load on the network is remarkably low, meaning the system is more responsive than you’d expect. It’ll work with any server, too – although I’ve only ever seen it demonstrated with Windows. Youakim says it’s no more trouble to run a Linux or Macintosh desktop in a Citrix client window, but you’ll have to set it up yourself.

Similarly, when Stephen Gordon of Lotus shows me WAP actually doing something useful a few days later, it is with a Notes-and-Domino system set up for a specific purpose. Domino Everyplace Access is the add-on necessary to connect a Domino database to any cellphone-equipped user; according to Gordon, the amount of re-purposing necessary is minimal to allow field users to do the classic salesman tasks – look up prices and availability and place orders, all with a widely available pocketable device.

Conclusions: After a day of not getting connected, except in an impersonal, one-way traffic sort of way, I conclude that it is possible to do useful work wirelessly with PDAs – however, you’ll probably need to set up your own supporting structure to do so. If there were more users around New Zealand with wireless devices, there might be more publicly accessible software, which would encourage sales of hardware, which would lead to more software ... and so on.

This cycle doesn’t quite seem to have started running yet, despite the efforts of a few pioneers to supply WAP services. The 9600-baud equivalent of current GSM telephones is just too slow, but the better bandwidth we are promised soon could make all the difference. With enough infrastructure – like the US global positioning network of satellites – anything is possible.

Ballantyne is an Auckland IT journalist.

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