Do you suffer separation anxiety when you leave the office? Can't bear to log off the local-area network at work? Well, help is on the way. Palm, Handspring, and others say consumers will soon be able to use their personal digital assistants (PDAs) to wirelessly tap into the office LAN.
The first of these products are now reaching the market, with broader availability expected by the end of this year. This means more than just checking your e-mail or browsing the Web -- you can already do those things with some PDAs. Rather, it means using your handheld to instantly log onto the office network and gaining access to the same software applications that you can from your desktop PC.
EXPANDING NETWORK. Sound intriguing? You bet. Don't feel like lugging your laptop to the conference room for the weekly sales meeting? No problem. Just take your PDA and stay connected -- even as you walk down the hall. Or perhaps you're stuck in an airport and need to check some spreadsheets back at the office. No sweat. Use your PDA to connect to the Internet via the airport's wireless receiver, and then go to your company's LAN.
The main technology that allows such nonstop computing is called Wi-Fi (formally known as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11b standard). Essentially a set of telecommunications parameters, Wi-Fi lets computers volley data back and forth at speeds greater than 7 megabits per second. That makes them even faster than many wired ethernet LANs.
Don't expect Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs to flood the market just yet, though. The technology is just now showing up in businesses, embedded in notebooks and in the antennae used to support wireless LANs. And only a handful of public facilities, such as airports and hotel lobbies, can handle Wi-Fi communications. Strong market demand -- if it comes -- is not expected until next year. Besides, Wi-Fi may be less suitable for PDAs than for notebook and desktop PCs. First, it makes PDAs expensive -- adding Wi-Fi can double the cost. Moreover, it can cut PDAs' battery life from six hours to two. Still, some users may be willing to make the compromise. "We're making Wi-Fi available for those that want to make the trade-off," says Michael Mace, Palm's chief competitive officer.
For those who choose to do so, there are several options. Intel's Xircom unit has created a Wi-Fi attachment for Handspring's Visor handheld computers. The device, called the SpringPort Wireless Ethernet module, has a list price of $299. Symbol Technologies in May demonstrated a Wi-Fi card for handheld computers that use Microsoft's Pocket PC platform. These devices include Hewlett-Packard's Jornada, Compaq's iPAQ and Casio's Cassiopeia. In the near future, says Symbol, it will release Wi-Fi cards that support the Palm operating system. Agere Systems, the Lucent Technologies spinoff whose wireless LAN products are resold by Apple and Compaq, is expected to begin selling Wi-Fi cards to PDA makers this summer. It already makes a Wi-Fi card for tablet-sized mobile computers.
COMPETING STANDARDS. Non-Wi-Fi choices are available as well. Palm and other handheld makers say they'll sell other cards later this year that use Bluetooth technology. This can match neither the power of Wi-Fi (it transmits only 30 feet, while Wi-Fi can transmit 400 feet indoors and 1,000 feet outdoors), nor its speed (Bluetooth transmits no more than 2 megabits per second, compared to Wi-Fi's 7 megabits).
Still, Bluetooth's proponents hope it will catch on as an inexpensive way to check e-mails and send and receive documents. Bluetooth cards are expected cost less than $150 when they become available later this year. There's also another technology, called HomeRF, the latest version of which transmits data at speeds up to 10 megabits per second over short distances. Unfortunately, HomeRF, while occasionally found in the smallest of offices, is targeted largely at the consumer-electronics market.
With all these choices, you should be able to leave your office without a care in the world. Just don't forget to bring extra batteries. By Kevin Ferguson
EDITED BY Fred Strasser