The large number of wireless data transmitters for personal digital assistants exhibited at last month's PC Expo in New York suggests that a new era of portability has arrived. But long-standing technical and market hurdles remain that are likely to make ubiquitous computing and Web access a dream slightly deferred, according to analysts and vendors.
Before the debut last month of 3Com's Palm VII wireless PDA, few manufacturers managed to squeeze cellular phone circuitry and antennas into normal-size PDAs. Most "wireless" PDA devices require a physical link to an actual cell phone for transmission--even the Socket Communications Digital Phone Card for Windows CE devices, which garnered much of the attention at PC Expo. But that should change in the next 18 months as phone vendors such as Nokia and Qualcomm introduce cell phones on a chip, says Bruce Kasrel, senior analyst at Forrester Research.
Most wireless networks have their own proprietary standards, and no single network covers enough geographic areas to dominate. What's more, radio circuitry in the device will usually work only with one cellular standard, such as CDPD or GSM. So PDA makers typically pick one or two networks to support, then form partnerships with vendors of removable--and thus interchangeable--PC Card cellular modems, or with the network carriers themselves. It all adds up to a piecemeal setup that most consumers find cumbersome.
Knowing this, 3Com wanted to make the Palm VII networkable right out of the box, so it joined with Bell South's Intelligent Wireless Network, a decade-old radio (not cellular) network available in most U.S. metro areas, to create Palm.Net. The new network will have special servers and other infrastructure designed expressly to store and download personal and public information to the PDA.
"We designed the device and the service to be network independent," says Tammy Medanich, a 3Com product marketing manager; the company plans to support other cellular and wireless standards, she says. 3Com's strategy may point the way to an eventual solution to the wireless PDA puzzle.
"The network shouldn't have to make much difference," says Kasrel, pointing out that a so-called 3G (for third generation) standard is likely to unify cell-phone networks anyway by around 2002. The real challenge for PDA vendors and major wireless networks is to build the additional Palm.Net-like infrastructure to deliver content that people want to read on their PDAs. "It's going to happen," Kasrel says, thanks to proven demand for such services and the need of cellular carriers to sell new products and services.