Internet executive Bryan Thatcher can see it now: It's 2004, and he's waiting to board a plane in New York. Cupping his all-in-one personal digital assistant, he watches as a videoconference with his San Francisco clients begins. Discreetly, he opens a smaller window on the screen and reads a text translation of an urgent voice-mail his assistant has just left him. He's the ultimate road warrior with the ultimate communications weapons.
Dream on, Thatcher. Right now, the CEO of 55-employee Fusebox Inc., a New York Web-development company with a projected $6.5 million in revenues this year, carries a Web-enabled cell phone, a standard digital cell phone, a two-way pager, and a Web-accessible PDA. Why so many devices? None of them is capable of doing everything Thatcher needs to do. Some are best for e-mail, others for voice mail. And none is terribly good for getting on the Web because of maddeningly slow download speeds. "There's no convergence yet, and because of that we see small businesses acquiring more than one device," says Delly Tamer, president and CEO of LetsTalk.com, a Web retailer of pagers and cell phones.
What's worse, incompatible communications standards mean that devices that work in one place may be useless in another. So while subscribers to AT&T Digital PocketNet service can read restaurant reviews and stock quotes over their Web-enabled cell phones in Raleigh, N.C., they're out of luck in Atlanta, where AT&T lacks cellular coverage and local carriers use different standards.
In short, the great promise of the wireless revolution--seamless Web access from any point on the globe with one integrated mobile device--is still years way from reality. Wireless won't even begin to get interesting until the "signpost year" of 2003, predicts Roy Want, principal engineer at Intel Corp. research labs, when more uniform standards should make your various wireless devices more compatible and functional wherever you travel.
O.K., so all your wireless dreams won't come true next year. Still, 2001 will bring significant innovations in products and services that could help you and your employees work wirelessly with greater ease. Here's a look at the changes that will matter most.
HERE COMES BLUETOOTH
If you learn any techno-talk this year, one term you ought to get cozy with is an emerging standard called "Bluetooth," which proponents say will unite the telecom and computing industries. (Hence its name, after the Danish king Harald Blatand, or Bluetooth, who unified Denmark and Norway.) According to Cahners In-Stat Group, by 2005 Bluetooth wireless technology will be a built-in feature in more than 670 million products.
Just beginning to show up in the market now, Bluetooth products, including printers, PCs, PDAs, and cell phones, are equipped with microchip receivers that enable the devices to communicate wirelessly up to 10 meters. They can even operate without a direct line of sight, which means you could have a Bluetooth printer in one room printing out a document from a Bluetooth PC in another--a boon to growing small companies that are forever reconfiguring their offices.
Bluetooth can help you when you're out of the office, too. Instead of carrying around reams of documents, you'll soon be able to log on to the Web with your cell phone or PDA, download a document, and then either forward it to a nearby Bluetooth-enabled fax machine at some airport lounge or print it out on the nearest Bluetooth printer.
Among those now building Bluetooth-enabled products for small business are IBM, Epson America, Toshiba America Information Systems, and Hewlett-Packard. Epson's new Bluetooth printer, called the 777 Stylus Color Inkjet, made its debut at November's COMDEX show. It should start to hit the market just before 2001. The price hasn't been announced yet.
For notebook computers, Bluetooth cards can be inserted to make them compatible with other Bluetooth wireless devices. For example, IBM has a new Bluetooth card, for $189, which can be inserted into the side of an IBM ThinkPad notebook computer. In 2001, IBM also plans to offer built-in Bluetooth formats for WorkPad PDAs.
Since you're likely to be juggling multiple devices for some time, you'll benefit from wireless synchronization software. Let's say you want to update your address book or your appointment schedule in your wireless PDA. You'll be able to log on wirelessly to a password-protected Web site, where all your data are stored in the centralized server, and put in the new info. When you log on to that same site later from your other devices, such as your cell phone or PC, you can update them with the new info, too.
In the first quarter of 2001, fusionOne Inc. in San Jose, Calif., plans to release "collaborative synchronization" software that will let a team of mobile workers wirelessly and automatically update shared documents from the fusionOne Web site. So each time a worker calls up the centrally stored document from the road, previous changes made by other team members are already noted. The company expects to launch the collaborative software on the site as part of a suite of subscription-only business services, which will cost about $40 to $49 per year.
Another new synching service from Los Angeles-based SDN Online Inc., due out early in 2001 as part of its ZKey program, will help mobile employees manage travel expenses on a central server. While on the road, the employee uses a PDA or cell phone to enter in the expense on a template form. The ZKey database keeps a running tally of expenses and can even alert the employees when preset spending limits are exceeded. ZKey services will be free to business users. (Telecom carriers and ISPs are supposed to pick up the tab).
WI-FI, WHY NOT?
By far the most dramatic development for the mobile entrepreneur in 2001 will be the proliferation of a technology that has been trademarked by the industry as Wi-Fi (for wireless fidelity). That's what new services such as Wayport, SoftNet, and MobileStar will use to enable you to step off a plane and immediately hit the Web running. No wires. No dial-up. No credit cards. It's just on, and it's fast. Wi-Fi allows laptop users to download Web pages at 11 megabits per second--that's slightly faster than digital subscriber line (DSL) modems and 50 to 200 times as fast as ordinary cellular modems. Although still in the early rollout stage, you can expect to see Wi-Fi services by 2001 in numerous airports, hotels, and even a few convention halls and sports stadiums.
Here's how it works: A notebook computer with either a built-in Wi-Fi modem or an attachable Wi-Fi network modem card sends a wireless signal to receivers scattered around the hotel or airport. Once the signal is received, it's passed to a wired, Ethernet local-area network, the kind used in most offices. To use the service, you'd pay a subscription charge, typically about $10 per day for unlimited usage, and spend an additional $150 to $200 for the insertable Wi-Fi card that goes in the laptop. Wi-Fi networks should be fairly common by the end of 2001. The only drawback so far: Since different hotels and airports may strike deals with different Wi-Fi providers, you might find yourself needing multiple subscriptions and cards if you travel a lot.
Nevertheless, the players are moving ahead vigorously with their plans. For instance, SoftNet Systems Inc.'s Aerzone subsidiary in October agreed to deliver wireless Internet services to United Airlines Inc.'s terminals and lounges. Aerzone, which struck a similar deal with Delta Air Lines Inc. in April, expects to be in nearly 30 airports by the end of 2000. A third provider, Wayport Inc., already offers service in 171 hotels and two airports and has ambitious expansion plans. And for its part, MobileStar offers its service in 95 hotels and in American Airlines Inc. facilities in 25 airports. "Once it is located at all major airports, it will be as important as my boarding pass," says Wayport customer Patrick A. Custer, president of TV set-top box maker uniView Technologies Corp. in Dallas. For several months, Custer has been testing Wayport's service for his 85-employee, $9.15 million company.
THE LONG VIEW
Just how soon will Thatcher really get his hands on a multifunctional PDA, one that will let him leave a few other gadgets behind when he travels? Good question. Manufacturers are bullish that the devices will begin to blend. But whether that's in 2004, as Thatcher hopes, they're not sure. "I can see the day when we have streaming audio and video on these devices," predicts Ed Colligan, senior vice-president for sales and marketing and co-founder of PDA maker Handspring Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. "The exact time, I'm not sure about." For now, you'll have to take the future one device at a time.