Here comes wireless -- watch out for the riptide

by Richard Seltzer,

This article is based on my personal observations and what I learned at my weekly chat program "Business on the World Wide Web", on October 7, 1999. Our invited guest on this chat session was Alan Reiter, from Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing The complete transcript is available at For details about the chat program, the upcoming schedule, and earlier transcripts see

This article was heard on the radio program "The Computer Report," which is broadcast live on WCAP in Lowell, Mass., and is syndicated on WBNW in Boston and WPLM in Plymouth, Mass, and is also available as RealAudio at

First, let's keep in mind that there are two different flavors of wireless, which have very different business implications.

There is fixed wireless which includes wireless over local area networks (LANs) up to a few hundred feet, and also wide area wireless, which with fixed antennas can cover a metropolitan area. When a laptop with a compatible radio modem is within range of an antenna, it can connect to the Internet.

In addition, there is "wireless wireless," which, as Alan explains, includes connecting with cell phones, pagers, or palm computers and other gadgets, piggybacking on existing wireless phone and data services. For instance, with a PCS data service like Sprint, you would get Internet coverage wherever Sprint has voice coverage.

When I worked at Digital, many of us had little transceivers attached to our laptops, so from most rooms in most buildings inside the company, we could connect to the LAN. Soon everyone was carrying their laptops to meetings and doing email and checking documents on the Web during the boring parts. But you had to be within a narrow range for these things to work.

Last week, I met with Kathleen Warner, who used to manage Digital's intranet and now is in charge of IT at Boston College. She mentioned that, within a few months, BC plans to be the world's first wireless campus. They will have servers strategically placed throughout the campus, so wherever you are, you can connect. She also mentioned that the oldest building on campus was the first to be equipped for wireless -- it was so old that it would have been difficult if not impossible to wire it.

In cases, like that, wireless is an inexpensive and flexible way to build the IT infrastructure of a company or university campus. But the activities it supports are very much the same as usual -- whatever you can do with ordinary PCs and laptops.

Eventually, I'd expect this kind of wireless capability to be tied to real estate value, like office buildings and convention centers. I'd also expect to find fixed wireless in airports and other places where travelers with laptops often have to wait. But for now, Alan notes, hotels are still scrambling to provide high-speed Internet connection by wire and cable, and wireless is considered "esoteric."

Wireless wireless is a whole different ballgame. It's not just an alternative way for today's users to get to the same Web pages and email they have in the past. As Reuters pointed out in a report about the expected announcement from Oracle of "a product to let consumers shop electronically from any existing mobile phone," such a move "could rapidly triple the

number of Internet shoppers worldwide." If that, in fact, is the case either for the Oracle offering or other similar products, the content and the format of content on the Internet is likely to change to appeal to this vast new audience.

First, we can expect that the growing popularity of wireless Internet will mean that text, as opposed to multimedia and graphics, will become increasingly important. The limitations of the screens of cell phones, pagers, and palm computers -- black and white and very small -- and also the limitations of text-to-voice conversion will, for the short-term, rule out multi-media and fancy graphics.

In other words, we can expect a wave of change that is completely opposite to the multimedia temptations of high-speed access. I wonder how many online retailers will be caught in the riptide -- investing heavily in video at a time when huge numbers of text-only shoppers are coming to the Web for the first time.

All the services that want to appeal to people accessing the Internet with wireless gadgets, which includes the major news services, online stock trading companies, and shopping sites, will want to have simple plain text versions of their pages, which can be viewed on the tiny screens of those gadgets, can be navigated easily with text-based browsers, or can be heard over a phone thanks to voice conversion. Maybe they'll do this in addition to, not instead of, their whiz-bang flash and splash sites, but text-centric pages will be essential for their success.

That could be an immediate benefit for text-based search engines, and also for the blind, who are locked out by fancy effects, but who can "read" plain text with text-to-voice converters.

It would be good if there were a simple way to connect the wireless gadgets with conventional text-to-voice converters, and then make the converters compact enough to be portable. Or maybe the conversion will happen on the network and the text be delivered by voice over a phone. Either way that could help the blind and also those who would sometimes like to hear their news and email, perhaps while driving or jogging.

Oh, brave new world, filling all our idle moments and downtime with connectedness and wisdom...

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