Vendor efforts to provide wireless connectivity for personal digital assistants are hobbled both by technical hurdles and by the usual standardization struggles and tenuous "coopetition" that are typical of the electronics industry. Analysts say better network performance and PDA-size formatting of Web content are the goals of a Who's Who of communication vendors. But success is still two to three years away--in part because of disagreement on the best ways to solve both challenges.
"It's really the networks that are the bottleneck at this point," says Ross Rubin, vice president at Jupiter Communications, a market-research firm. The problem: Cellular phone networks are just now getting the ability to transmit the packets of data that go over the Internet. One of the most promising, CDPD, which overlays packet transmission on top of standard analog networks, has been a slow-growth market for many years, Rubin says, adding "the digital networks are not really built up yet."
CDPD's lack of widespread coverage also makes it too expensive for most users, says Randy Giusto, an analyst at International Data Corp. The promising digital cellular standard, GSM, is ubiquitous in Europe but just getting started in the United States. "There's not one overwhelming standard, and GSM is not optimal for large data packets," Giusto says.
"We don't have the infrastructure in place to give us the speed we need," says J. Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights. Purdy says the best speed that CDPD networks have been able to demonstrate is around 14 kilobits per second, less than half the throughput of the typical desktop PC modem and probably too slow to keep wireless PDAs filled with timely and useful information. Purdy predicts, however, that adequate wireless PDA throughputs between 28 and 128 kbps will arrive in two to three years.
Almost everyone agrees that wireless-enabled Web servers will be the main repositories of both public and personal data, but techniques and standards for displaying and updating the data remain unsettled. Even the most-hyped standard, Wireless Application Protocol, which is expected to show up in "smart" phones and some handhelds within a year, "tends to assume a very low level of functionality on the device," Rubin says. "It's really designed for a four-line phone."
WAP requires regular Web content to be reformatted into a wireless markup language (WML) and could yet lose out to other formats promulgated by individual vendors. One example: the "Web clipping" format 3Com developed in-house to show information on its newly available Palm VII wireless PDA.