Web Informant #118, 15 July 1998:
What went wrong with wireless data


I have been a wireless data groupie for nearly a decade. The word brings up someone who has a certain attraction to the technology, who is perhaps star-struck, a voyeur perhaps. All apply in spades. Back in the early days, cell phones and data weren't even thought of in the same sentence; pagers weren't popular, and PC Cards weren't even invented. Of course, some things have changed: almost everyone in Finland carries a cell phone, for example. Pagers are pervasive. And the radios have gotten smaller and more useful.

But I really am more than just a groupie, because over the years I have used many of these products. I remember back in 1991 when my staff installed the Motorola Altair wireless network unbeknownst to me one weekend. When I didn't notice any performance loss, they proudly told me what they did. Too bad Motorola abandoned that technology in 1995. I was one of the first users of RadioMail, a wireless email technology that worked with a one-pound radio and a one pound HP palmtop.

The problem is that things haven't improved as much as they need to be to make wireless data a slam-dunk. The technology is still waiting for its Next Big Thing. Users have to know too much about batteries, radios, protocols, message queuing theory, and other arcane details. The monthly operating cost can be prohibitive. You still need to be your own systems integrator and pull together various bits and pieces. All of this was true about the industry in 1992 as much as 1998, and it doesn't look like things will get much better by 2000.

Why all this tripping down memory lane this week? Lately I have been doing some research for an article I am writing for ComputerWorld on smart pagers. I have tried out a quartet of devices, including the latest things from Motorola and BellSouth Wireless Data. One of them, the PageMart Synapse card, fits inside a Palm Pilot and can sometimes match an incoming phone number with the name in your Pilot address book. The BellSouth Inter@ctive Pager can take messages and transcribe to a synthetic voice and read them to someone answering an ordinary telephone. The PocketTalk device can retrieve short voice messages, while the Motorola PageWriter 2000 fits a wireless Lotus Notes client inside its tiny box. None of the four work flawlessly; all have their problems. For example, the Synapse software doesn't recognize the incoming phone number if it occurs beyond the first digit of the message. The BellSouth unit has a complex pair of rechargable and replaceable batteries that requires some thought to turning different pieces on and off. And so forth.

Like I said, wireless data, circa 1998, is still too hard. I found too many tradeoffs with using these smart pagers. The ordinary, dumb one-way pagers work because they are tiny, their batteries last forever, and they can be used by anyone including my nine-year old. The smarter devices are harder to use, they eat batteries for lunch, and they don't always work without some specialized knowledge.

There are some attractions for these pagers. They do make great cocktail party conversation as well as diversions during long meetings when I can send email on the sly. And my daughter is now enamored of the Synapse/Pilot combination, although not to the point where she is willing to learn the Graffiti specialized input keystrokes. But these advantages aren't enough for me to forgo my CDPD cell phone from Samsung. I can read my ordinary POP email on the phone, as well as search my rolodex for contacts and compose short (very short) replies. It took a fair amount of work to get all this setup, far more work than an average person would want to deal with to be sure.

So I continue to be a wireless data groupie. Maybe not as much fun as going to rock concerts, but hey, everyone has to have a hobby.

Self-promotions dep't

My latest review of two workflow products, Keyfile's Keyflow and Jetform's InTempo, appeared this week in Computerworld.

David Strom
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