PC EXPO: IBM gives peek at wireless blue skies

The wireless buzz was almost tangible at PC Expo this week as dozens of companies showed off their wares. But one company, IBM, likes to think its Pervasive Computing division is bringing all the hype down to earth.

The wireless buzz was almost tangible at PC Expo this week as dozens of companies showed off their wares. But one company, IBM, likes to think it's bringing all the hype down to earth.

Well, maybe not exactly to earth, but at least to its own powerful servers, software, and tiny storage devices.

IBM's Pervasive Computing division outlined its plans for a new class of information services through partnerships with information brokers such as travel agents and telecommunications companies. With the help of these partners, IBM says, it has begun mapping out a technology architecture for building next-generation connectivity services.

The goal is to enable companies to develop wireless applications that can be accessed over a network from a Palm-size device, cellular phone, or even a monitor mounted in an airplane seat, says Phylis Porio, director of marketing for IBM Pervasive Computing.

Ideally you could access a single application (be it e-mail, a personal calendar, or stock trades) with any device from anywhere (say from your home, a networked car, or a handheld device).

Porio says two companies, travel agency SABRE Group and cellular phone company Nokia, are already hard at work piecing together one of the first such wireless networks.

Beginning next month, some SABRE customers with enhanced Nokia phones will be able to access real-time interactive wireless services. In a pilot program, they will be able to book flights, initiate flight changes, and receive updates from airlines anywhere, anytime.

One of the beta wireless networking services offered by IBM partner eScholar targets school districts. The company says it can tie huge divergent databases together and allow a Palm-size device to access them.

Using an eScholar network, teachers can query databases from a wireless Palm interface to find out, for example, which students are reading below grade level, or to record attendance.

"It's all about getting information in the hands of the people who can use it," says Shawn Bay, president of Vision Associates, eScholar's parent company.

IBM's role in the partnerships is to provide the infrastructure, including hardware, software, and systems integration.

Making this technology work requires a Herculean effort, says Porio. Because IBM has its hand in so many different technologies, it believes it's well positioned to piece together the wireless puzzle.

The Pervasive Computing division focuses on three converging technologies that it believes are essential to a wireless world: semiconductor, storage, and software.

On the hardware front, IBM is refining devices such as the matchbook-size Microdrive, which is used for storage inside handheld devices. At the same time it continues to build back-end data warehouses and powerful servers like its own RS/6000.

Among software efforts, IBM's new DB2 Everywhere is designed to handle wireless access to databases.

IBM says one of the biggest challenges is developing software that runs across numerous operating systems and ties together all the devices on a network. To that end IBM says it will rely on Java and at the same time will work with the open standards community to create a wireless application protocol.

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