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Personal Toolkit: Out of thin air

By Steve Barth

It's getting late here in Caracas and, to be honest, I'm sorry I ever promised this column on wireless connectivity. No area of personal productivity technology mismatches as much promise to as little reality. No other issue requires juggling as many acronyms representing conflicting standards and protocols. Mobile phone makers develop amazing phones that never appear in the U.S. market. Wireless voice/data providers can't untangle their own technologies or billing plans. At a recent panel on mobile commerce, the players enthusiastically engaged in a debate about "who owns the customer," but talked little about providing customers with services they actually needed, wanted or were even already paying for. Trying to get voice, data or Internet access on an anytime, anywhere basis brings together so many dysfunctional sectors of modern business that trying to make sense of the subject is as about as difficult as conjuring a rabbit out of thin air, let alone an important message from a customer.

OK, rant over. Here's the thing:

Knowledge work is mobile: Wherever you go, there's your brain; wherever your brain goes, there are the problems you are trying to solve, the decisions you are trying to make and the ideas you are trying to have. Unless you are one of those rare individuals who has actually mastered the esoteric art of "time off," knowledge work goes everywhere you go—like your shadow. And because knowledge work is collaborative, collaboration has to be mobile as well.

In the last column, I mused a bit about how we maintain that golden thread to our personal, local and global networks. These days, all of the talk in all three areas is about the potential of wireless technology to cut the umbilicals and simplify your life.

Obviously, there are basically three things you can do wirelessly. You can share knowledge and build relationships more or less the old-fashioned way with the now ubiquitous cell phone. You can send and receive messages, from simple text to robust e-mail with attachments, using anything from Blackberries to wireless modules on laptops. And with even slow wireless connections, you can surf the Web when you can't wait for a cable modem.

Less obvious are the ways in which the devices can be made to work together. Infrared connections and more recently Bluetooth have replaced cables between devices. Wireless protocols such as 802.11 will soon reach down from local area networking to connect personal devices without draining batteries, and negotiate access to more and more public and private "hot spots" sprouting up everywhere. Mobile phones are connecting to data networks through existing digital services and hi-speed data is finally becoming a reality.

Over the years I've played with a number of wireless gadgets and strategies and have recently been playing with a few of the latest devices. I've come to feel that prices drop in direct proportion to the amount of time you'll have to invest instead to pick one and get the darn thing working. I wish I could simplify that process with a clear recommendation, but I'm just not that kind of columnist. However, I'll offer these hints to help you make up your own mind about developing and implementing your own strategy.

I have been most satisfied with “world phones” that tap GSM networks just about anywhere in the world, although coverage is still spotty in the United States outside of major cities. That may change with the introduction of new GAIT phones fromSiemens and Nokia, which combine the international standard of GSM with one of the U.S. digital standards, TDMA and even the old AMPS analog standard. I found the Nokia phone serviceable but not special. And unfortunately, none of the wireless carriers seem willing to add the analog option, so GAIT phones are more likely to improve urban coverage, not rural roaming. Another drawback of global roaming is the cost—two weeks of limited use calling home and third countries while traveling in Asia this summer set me back more than $100 in extra charges.

Ericsson's new T68 world phone—now the T68i from the Sony Ericsson partnership—will browse the Web and access e-mail at 9600 over GSM and the newer GPRS data networks, where available, at slightly faster speeds. Checking e-mail on the phone itself is possible but agonizingly ineffective. Do we really want to browse the Web—or even check mail—on a screen the size of a postage stamp? The Ericsson is equipped with both Bluetooth and infrared to connect to other devices for synchronization or as a modem. Motorola’s Motorola's (motorola.com) sexy clamshell V60 is also a world phone with wireless data capability, but includes neither Bluetooth nor IR, so you'll need a cable to use it as a modem for your PDA or laptop.

Connecting your devices is what people are talking about when they refer to personal area networking. My Sharp laptops would happily download e-mails any time I set my Ericsson phone down next to it. The two infrared devices were happy to cooperate, even though GSM only allows a speed of 9.6 Kbps. I set up Outlook to look for the IR modem if no other connection was present, and it automatically reconfigures in that case to only download messages below a threshold I set at 50 or 100 K, so that it won't try downloading anything huge. The secret is being sure to synch mail before leaving home/office/hotel so the mail to receive wirelessly doesn't back up too much.

I had some luck accessing the net through the phone using a Socket Bluetooth chip in an HP Jornada PDA. Unfortunately, since recently upgrading my Thinkpad (ibm.com) to Windows XP, the infrared module doesn't want to work and the Bluetooth drivers refuse to install in the laptop, but that doesn't matter since the Ericsson refuses to handshake with my Earthlink dial-up account through Cingular's GSM service. Since none of this stuff works regularly, I won’t bother translating all of the jargon.

This is where you start looking for simpler solutions. I was very impressed with the new Handspring > Treo 300, which combines a mobile phone, wireless access device and Palm-powered PDA into a single tool only a little bigger than the average cell phone. Network access over Sprint’s nationwide Vision network averages 50 to 70 Kbps (reaching 144, which is as close to third-generation wireless broadband as we're likely to see for a while).

Sprint will soon offer Vision modules for laptops and PDAs, for direct Web access without connecting through phones. I always found PC-card wireless solutions such as http://www.sierrawireless.com">Sierra Wireless S and Novatel CDPD modems which put your laptops on the air at about 19 kbaud ??????.

I also have geeky friends who have been impressed with the new Danger Sidekick as a wireless data and Web device only a little bigger that a BlackBerry device—but they found it clumsy as a phone.

When it comes to choosing your own wireless strategy, the best you can do is define your boundary conditions. Ask yourself three key questions:

  • Do you want the best networks in a limited geographic region? Or do you roam far and wide?;

  • Do you need hi-bandwidth for data? Or does most of your intensive knowledge exchange happen by voice?;

  • Do you really want to be connected and reachable at all times? Or do you actually crave quiet time.

Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail barth.km@global-insight.com. For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site global-insight.com.

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