Going On Line When You're Off The Beaten Path

For months, computer makers, phone companies, and the media have been bombarding the public with the idea of "anytime/anywhere" communications and information. Apple Computer Inc. says that its Newton personal digital assistant (PDA) will offer such capabilities, while American Telephone & Telegraph Co., in its "You Will" ad campaign, depicts a future of untethered communication and computing.

But so far, these are just promises. Although sales of portable computers are booming, most of these devices are far from being really portable when it comes time to send a file or a fax, check electronic mail, or read on-line news services. You have to find a phone jack and plug the thing in. The same goes for most of the PDAs. Why? No wireless modem was small enough for the handheld machines, and when PC makers tried rigging tiny cellular communicators into laptops, they ran into electrical-interference problems.

UNTETHERED. That should change soon. If computer makers deliver on what they promised at the recent Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, they will be completing those wireless connections in the coming months. There will be new gear that plugs into special slots now appearing in portable PCs and PDAs. These slots conform to the Personal Computer Memory Card International Assn. (PCMCIA) format and accept credit-card-size devices such as modems. Wireless PCMCIA cards should dramatically boost the appeal of untethered computing. Partly as a result, the number of wireless-data users will grow from 1 million this year to 7.3 million in 1998, says market researcher Yankee Group Inc.

Some of these new cards allow notebook PCs to link up to cellular-phone networks via an ordinary cellular phone. These cards are attached by a small cable to a cradle device that holds the phone. Other cards will link users to one of two nationwide wireless data services: Ardis, owned by IBM and Motorola Inc., and Ram, a venture of BellSouth Corp. and Ram Broadcasting Corp. The first Ardis and Ram cards need to be attached to radio transceivers about the size of a cellular phone. But next year, companies such as Motorola and L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. plan to sell the entire radio on a card.

Another new wireless data system getting a lot of attention is cellular digital packet data (CDPD). The system works by sending split-second bursts of data during normal pauses in conversations on cellular networks. Cellular operators are just starting to bring CDPD on-line, and it requires its own special attachments for a portable PC: a PCMCIA card hooked to a small radio device. But by next year, the CDPD equipment will fit onto a card, says Bob Growney, general manager of Motorola's Paging & Wireless Data Group. And owners of IBM's ThinkPad 750 notebook will soon be able to buy a $1,495 CDPD transceiver from Cirrus Logic Inc., which goes in place of the floppy drive.

PDAs, too, are finally going wireless as well--something only AT&T's bulky EO can do now. A new Motorola PCMCIA card provides receive-only wireless communications for the Newton MessagePad and the Zoomer PDA, sold by both Casio Corp. and Tandy Corp. These cards, priced at $230-$250, can receive short text messages as well as news briefs, stock quotes, and other information.

WONDER YEAR. Ultimately, the wireless future will require hardware that fully incorporates such communications capabilities. For now, that leaves out most notebook PCs. The forthcoming PCMCIA cards that house the entire radio won't work with many notebook computers--the computers' electronics interfere with radio signals. These PCs can use only the cards that connect to a separate radio transceiver or cellular phone. So for a truly integrated wireless device, you may have to start over.

And next year may be the right time: PC makers and electronics companies plan lots of wireless wonders. Simon, developed by IBM and BellSouth, offers PDA functions such as a to-do list, address book, and cellular phone. The $899 device can also send and receive faxes from its screen. Apple and AT&T plan new Newtons and EOs, while Motorola will unveil three different wireless PDA lines. Sony Corp. and Matsushita Elec- trical Industrial Co. should weigh in, too. And many new notebooks will be wireless-friendly. "This is not a question of if this is going to evolve--just a question of time," says Motorola's Growney. Maybe in 1994, the hype of 1993 will come true.

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