Column: Retooling sites for wireless is the next trend

It turns out I was wrong again. Not about the internet stock crash on November 8 - that would be next week. No, it turns out I was wrong about wireless.

I've been down on wireless for a long time. When choosing an "ether" for Ethernet back in 1973, I did not choose wireless, even though Ethernet was based on Alohanet, which used radio.

Ethernet was first built on coaxial cable and later on telephone wire, for good reasons. The wireless Alohanet ran expensively at 9.6K bps, while the first wired Ethernet ran cheaply at 2.94Mbps - more than 300 times faster.

More recently, when wireless Ethernets were trying to be the rage, I again said, "no". Wires (and fibres) are so much better than the real ether. Ubiquitously wired plugs will always be better than slow, expensive, and unreliable wireless. I was right to be down on wireless LANs.

Enthusiasts took offense when I wrote that wireless portable PCs would be as rare as pipeless portable bathrooms.

Wireless PCs would show up as often as port-o-potties - on boats, in airplanes, at rock concerts, around construction sites.

So, this year, planning for my annual gathering of the computer industry, Agenda 2000 (http://www.agendaweb.com), I didn't tee up wireless.

I only realised my mistake in the middle of a panel about e-commerce. We were talking about moving companies from an old to a new paradigm, from traditional commerce to e-commerce.

Dawn LePore is CIO at Charles Schwab, which started as a leader in discount stock brokering and is now a leader online.

She sketched how Schwab had organised to get on the internet and how it is now reorganising to make the major shift "from the internet into wireless."

Ever the internet know-it-all, I interrupted LePore, pointing out the internet is independent of media. Surely she need not reorganise Schwab just to handle wireless.

LePore turned toward me, smiled sweetly, and although in not so many words, firmly made these eye-opening points.

The internet and wireless are quite different. To treat their differences as a simple matter of media will likely be fatal to your company. Wireless media are slow, unreliable, and intermittently connected, and your system has to deal with this, but that's just the beginning.

Devices to be used in wireless e-commerce, such as cell phones and personal digital assistants, are really not much like PCs. They have only vestigial keyboards, mice, and displays. Information on your Web site cannot just be dumped wirelessly, assuming that there is a PC at the other end.

It's true that HTML anticipates a wide variety of displays, but not wide enough. So there's your internet (HTML) content, there's your wireless content - don't get them confused - and that's still not all.

Services to be offered wirelessly are not nearly the same as those offered through PCs. Customers will expect different services when riding in a taxi from those they expect when they are sitting at their desks.

So says Dawn LePore. I was wrong not to make wireless technology a more prominent part of Agenda.

Of course, what I've said about port-o-potties had to do with wireless PCs. And most people talking about wireless today don't have PCs in mind.

So I could say that I wasn't really wrong about wireless PCs. But then we'd waste a lot of time arguing semantics - like Microsoft spinning this as the PC-Plus, not Post-PC, Era, sure.

I'd rather just admit I was wrong and add wireless to my beat.

So, will there be separate internet and wireless networks? After all this work on converging the internet, telephone, and television networks, do we now have internet-wireless divergence?

(Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe is sometimes wrong but never in doubt. Compute the batting average of his columns at http://www.infoworld.com/metcalfe.)

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