End of the Dark Ages?
Mobile technology is still largely unsatisfactory for the serious business user, but there are glimmers of hope.
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Despite all the chrome and the spiffy plastic cases, we are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to these tools. The IS folks and the bean counters are correct--they are primitive, nonstandard, unintegrated, slow and expensive.

The device of tomorrow is here--just ask the man or woman who wants to sell you one.

Lots of your colleagues have already bought one. Take a walk through a busy airport terminal or wander the lobbies of a few of the larger downtown hotels and you'll see them all: wireless phones in hues ranging from black to charcoal gray, with the occasional chrome thrown in; "pocket" handheld devices; two-way pagers; laptops that are thin and light or fat, powerful and heavy; and the in-between devices Microsoft insists on calling "PC Companions."

Most of the folks whose job it is to support the people who make money for the company hate these things. They're expensive. They're built from proprietary parts and give the barest of nods to industry standards. Much of the time they can neither be provisioned nor managed centrally, so supporting them requires additional personnel and new procedures. And speaking of supporting them, these portable and handheld devices are typically responsible for more than their share of calls to the company's help desk, which is why one of the oft-voiced company demands as part of a purchase agreement is for outsourced support.

As evidenced by phones and more recently by Palm handhelds, these devices typically enter the company not by way of the loading dock but from the employee parking lot, brought in by vice presidents who got them for the holidays or heard about them at the gym or the golf course and had to have one. These days, though, a sync cradle is attached to every third or fourth PC on the network, and business calls are regularly being forwarded to digital phones in executives' pockets and purses.

These devices make inroads because they're cool, of course, but also because they do the job. What salesperson today would be out of reach of a client's call because he or she hadn't gotten a wireless phone? Can you imagine trusting a repair technician who doesn't carry a laptop with a CD-ROM drive to be able to consult repair manuals and parts diagrams, and perhaps even a wireless modem allowing her to check on parts inventory in real time and receive that redirection from the dispatcher to a high priority call from a platinum-contract customer?

Welcome to the Dark Ages
Despite all the chrome and the spiffy plastic cases, though, we are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to these tools. The IS folks and the bean counters are correct--they are primitive, nonstandard, unintegrated, slow and expensive. Consider phones. Why should you have to decide what carrier technology you're going to use before you can buy a new wireless phone? When you order new service for your home, do you first ask what kind of wires are running from pole to pole? But in this country when you choose whether to go with Sprint PCS, or AT&T Wireless, or GTE, or Omnipoint or Pacific Bell Wireless, you're actually choosing from among incompatible carrier technologies. How mature can the system be when to change your service you must also junk your hardware? The wireless system in North America today is largely still about voice. Wireless data connections are available, but they're painfully slow, painfully expensive or both. And if you're up for a laugh, take a look at a coverage map for any of the major wireless packet data networks. The networks do cover almost all of the major cities, and thus much of the population, but if your business takes you away from center city, now is the time to ask how much memory is in that device. You'll need it to store--for disconnected use--the data you just accessed online.

One of the greatest productivity enhancers of recent years has been the airline power socket, which allows the business traveler to decide how much work to do based on inclination, energy level or the proximity of a deadline rather than on how quickly his or her laptop's battery will run out of juice. Battery technology has been improving at a snail's pace. At least modern Lithium-ion batteries are no longer subject to the "memory effect," which punished you for trying to keep your battery's charge up by having the battery hold less and less electricity over time. But we are still waiting for the transcontinental notebook battery and for the phone battery that will allow you not to pack the charger for that business trip.

Two technology giants, Intel and Microsoft, have had much to say about the state of traveling business tools. The microprocessors Intel has designed for use in notebooks have lagged behind their desktop kin in processing power while guzzling power as though they were born to be attached to power cords. The combination of low battery capacities and CPU demand has required that we resort to drastic power control measures, including dimming screens and turning off hard drives.

Then there's Microsoft. Windows was not designed for portability; its procrustean design was poured willy-nilly into laptops where it took forever to boot up, would crash at the blink of an eye or removal of a component, using up battery power each time it did, and wouldn't even let you change a configuration without having to shut the whole mess down and restart it. The desperate among road warriors, faced with the realities of Windows 3.1/95/98, were driven to extreme measures, such as using Windows CE devices equipped with stunted business software that turn on and off instantly and will run for hours.

Hints of a Renaissance
There is progress to report on most fronts. Palm handhelds now have color screens, and though the battery life of the IIIc is nothing to write home about, it's good enough to get by with. The first trials of next-generation phone technology, called 3G (for Third Generation), have begun. Transmeta Corporation, a small and mysterious Silicon Valley company, finally revealed in January that its product would be the Crusoe family of processors, which will compete with Intel CPUs and promise very long battery life. Microsoft's Windows 2000, which debuted in mid-February, at last delivers Windows NT robustness to portable platforms. At the same time, efforts are underway to put a friendlier face on Linux, so it can migrate from the server to the client machine, be it desktop or mobile.

Best of all, Bluetooth is coming, finally. Assuming it delivers as promised, we will finally be able to leave all those annoying cables and connectors behind. Instead, the Bluetooth chip will create a personal area network that wirelessly connects all the devices the road warrior carries. Your phone will be able to get the number you need from the address book in your laptop. To get e-mail, the laptop can use the phone to get a WAN connection; a downloaded message with a spreadsheet attached will go to the laptop, which will output it wirelessly to the printer in the office you're borrowing. In a Bluetooth-enabled hotel room, you won't have to plug into the fast Internet connection; it'll just be there as soon as you're within range.

We do live and work in interesting times. And they're getting more interesting all the time. Stay tuned.

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