Not Ready for Prime Time

The term “Internet time” conjures up images of an ultra-caffeinated, futuristic society. Yet Internet time literally started in 1970. References to modern-day email viruses aside, David Cassidy singing “I Think I Love You” probably isn’t one of the images that Internet time normally brings to mind.

Our point? Sometimes it takes years to become an overnight success.

Fast-forward to 1993. While performing research at SLAC, Greg and a fellow co-worker (himself a former CERN co-worker of Tim Berners-Lee, father of the web) are wowed by the arrival of the first graphical web browsers. It suddenly became obvious that the development and proliferation of a wireless web was manifest destiny. After all, ham radio enthusiasts had been pushing digital email packets over the airwaves for a few years prior.

Seven years, thousands of Ricochet modems, millions of cell phones, and an alphabet soup of wireless standards (HDML, SMS, WML, WAP, etc.) later, the promise of a wireless web is still a long ways off. We all know it’s coming, but no one knows exactly when and what form it will take.

(About the only thing we can be sure of is that it won’t involve the mobile, individual satellite uplinks that some “experts” once boldly predicted. If people were paranoid about a link between cell phones and brain cancer in the early 1990s, we can only imagine the reaction to carrying the gear of a TV-news live remote truck on our backs while every unopened bag of microwave popcorn explodes within a 50-foot radius.)

Instead of fueling the speculation and hype, this week we illustrate just how far the wireless micro-Internet is from being truly useful and viable. Gadget freaks will no doubt regard us as Luddites in web clothing. But for many of us who prefer not to crash and burn with the latest beta web browser releases, today’s wireless Internet is rife with incompatible technologies, incomplete services, and many soon-to-be-obsolete products.

Palm Reading

One of the oldest models for carrying part of your desktop PC in your pocket is the personal digital assistant, or PDA, and none has been more successful than Palm. Frequently imitated but never quite equaled in popularity, Palm only recently made the leap to the wireless Internet with last year’s introduction of the Palm VII. However, Palm’s latest strategy is to build wireless Internet access into the foundation of its entire product line.

Among the other devices reviewed here, the Palm is unquestionably the best device for viewing information a major asset if you’re viewing images, using applications, or playing games. And with the introduction of detachable wireless modems for the thinner Palm V, Palm has finally acknowledged that it’s sometimes more convenient to optionally carry around your desktop data without the added bulk of a radio transmitter.

The Palm stylus provides a very useful mouse-like pointer and cursor. But while the handwriting recognition of the Palm marks a quantum leap over its Apple Newton predecessor (a.k.a., the “Addle Neuutun”), entering data is often cumbersome and error-prone. Keyboard attachments are available, but the added wingspan defeats the small device’s purpose.

Internet-generated content for the Palm has been available for years, such as that provided through AvantGo. But to date the content offerings have been sparse and little more than miniature, dumbed-down versions of web pages. Furthermore, the best of these are available only for offline, not wireless, viewing. In short, the Palm currently has nothing close to a killer wireless app.

Greetings From Cell Block H

Dominating Europe more than David Hasselhoff did in his “Baywatch” heyday, mobile phones are poised to do for data communications what they have already done for voice. This pairing makes sense too; who needs one device for storing contact information and another for dialing it up?

Mobile phones have no shortage of wireless data options either. Through services such as Sprint’s PCS Wireless Web, users can access Internet information and services from wireless portals. And particularly in Europe, mobile phones can support the inane chatter made famous by instant messaging through standards such as the short message service, or SMS. (“So… what are you doing?”)

On the downside, all of it looks like primitive ASCII email that’s been put through a shredder. Typically presenting only four lines of 12 characters each, mobile phones have tried to work around this limitation through inventive display techniques such as flashing text like the Times Square JumboTron.

But 48 bytes leaves little room to be compelling. Furthermore, interaction consists only of text snippets and poorly accessible menu options. The result makes the bulletin board services (BBSes) of the mid-1980s seem like advanced technology.

Fade to Blackberry

Unlike the Palm or mobile phone, Research In Motion’s Blackberry recognizes that there’s more power in a device that’s a wireless extension of, and not a replacement for, your desktop PC. Instead of floating around the Internet as an independent node, the Blackberry interacts with your Microsoft Exchange Server via your desktop PC.

Through its miniature keyboard, the Blackberry exhibits the best data entry ergonomics of the lot. Another significant interface innovation is the clickable thumbwheel, which could well transform into the de facto mouse substitute for handheld devices.

Yet the Blackberry is a great example of a product rushed to market without all the features. Unless you purchase special server software, the Blackberry can receive email remotely only when your desktop is connected to Exchange rendering it almost useless for mobile laptop users. Tough luck for the millions who use POP accounts instead of Exchange.

And while it can sync up with an Exchange Server once physically connected to a desktop, it also cannot submit nor receive calendar and contact list updates remotely.

The Blackberry bears a striking resemblance to a useful device/service Greg devised a couple years ago out of a two-way pager, an email autoresponder, and a few Perl scripts (subject of an old ClickZ article, “Honey, I Shrunk the Internet“). However, the Blackberry exhibits much poorer message latencies (perhaps due to scaling problems with the service?) and yet offers no “hooks” to useful applications such as wireless access to Internet content, yellow pages, and driving directions.

A full PDA-like version of the Blackberry is in the works for head-to-head combat with Palm, but it’s unclear if any of these deficiencies are addressed in the new model.

It’s Sure Great Not Having to Lug the Laptop Around

The most aggravating thing about these devices is that, despite their many redundant features, each of them only gets part of it right and none of these parts fully overlaps another. As a result, you have to take along a mobile phone for voice communications, a Palm for applications, and a Blackberry for email. And then alarms on all three devices go off at once, reminding you of the same meeting synchronized from your desktop calendar.

As Santa Claus told Jesus before their celebrity death match on the first “South Park” episode, “There is only room for one.”

But the devices are only part of the equation. One of the most influential contributors to the web’s standards, Tim Bray, once lamented that the web is merely FTP with pictures. Today the wireless Internet can only aspire to be that compelling.

Thus advertising and other business models that work in the wireless realm are probably a ways off. (Not that this has stopped Internet companies before.) Email is a critical application that’s well suited for wireless devices, but it’s nothing that pagers and mobile phones haven’t offered in some form already.

The killer app of the wireless Internet will probably be just that an application. And when that arrives, the most clever business ideas for wireless Internet text snippets will be irrelevant. Today’s wireless Internet services may well be analogous to viewing the raw HTML of a web page rather than its formatted version.

Our best bet for your e-business? Unless wireless is going to be at its foundation, wait for the smoke to start clearing. While it’s good to experiment and get your feet wet, today’s wireless investments are bound to be expensive and have a short shelf life. Any wireless expertise relevant to future business success will undoubtedly be based on technologies and systems that haven’t even been invented yet.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.