Dell puts wireless high on list

At Dell Computer, wireless capabilities are high on its list of things to do this year, but choosing the right path to take is proving a bit tougher.

With personal area networks (PAN), wireless wide area networks (W-WAN) and third-generation (3G) mobile phones all vying for research and development (R&D) budgets, selecting which technology to chase may have to come from customer requests, rather than management orders.

According to Nick Lazaridis, director, Latitude notebooks, Dell Computer, Asia-Pacific, the company is focussing on several wireless technologies, some of which have passed customer alpha tests, while others remained in the initial R&D stages.

The firm's latest notebook, the Latitude LS, is made for mobility with a boot up time of less than 10 seconds, while the company has not written off Dell branded 3G phones, nor the fact that it may not stay 100 percent Intel-oriented for much longer.

"Personal area networking is just one of the products we're focussed on right now. We're bringing better wireless integration to the notebook with PAN radio frequency (RF) connectivity, currently we offer wireless via infrared, but soon everything will move to RF. Then there's Bluetooth which will allow wireless communications up to 10 meters at speeds approaching 721K bits per second (bps)," said Lazaridis.

Although the Bluetooth technology is being billed as a breakthrough infrastructure, the Dell executive sees little economic viability in it just yet.

Probably in the next couple of years once the industry had built the product into all family lines would it become worthwhile, he noted. Dell continues to work with partners on its TrueMobile initiative.

Meanwhile, Lazaridis said that Dell would release a couple of new products this year, starting wit the mini-PCI slots for LAN and modem cards, followed by integrated antennae cards for notebooks. Each product would offer 32-bit performance and would have a lifecycle of around 18 months. Dell guarantees customers between 1 and 1.5 year life cycles on all its products, according to Lazaridis.

"We tested the PC Companion -- a mix between a phone and a pager -- with some of our customers and they seemed to like it. As for Dell branded G3 phones, well maybe. Customers in the Asia-Pacific region are really asking us for these types of solutions, but they don't want to have three devices. Third-generation services will not happen as the bandwidth is not good enough now, but 2004/5 will be a big milestone for wireless communications," he added.

On the horizon for wireless communications is GPRS (general packet radio services), a transmission technology capable of speeds close to that of today's best wired modems.

At 2M bps, the technology is expected to become a mass market offering once the Internet-in-the-sky scheme from Teledesic comes online in 2003. The only downside to GPRS is that everyone that wanted to use the service will be required to purchase a new phone. A previous attempt at something like this was Motorola's Iridium, which came unstuck as GSM became so popular, especially with global roaming.

"GPRS is akin to the cutting of the GSM umbilical cord. Users will get much faster speeds than current landlines can provide today, but with a price. Sales could say, 'hey, we have a great new technology for you, but you have to buy a new phone'. We at Dell have a policy of going after every second step in technology," he added.

Waiting for every second step in a technologies lifeline could explain why Dell has been so quiet about WAP, while everyone else in the IT industry -- from portals to mobile phone operators -- seems to be going WAP-mad.

Also, waiting for every second round of technology has brought the company closer to Transmeta, creator of the Crusoe microprocessor. Linus Torvalds, the man behind the popular Linux operating system, is part of the team developing the made-for-mobility chip.

"Yes, we're talking to them (Transmeta), but we remain an Intel-only company today. One main issue with their processor is that it is made for personal digital assistants (PDAs) only, we know it's a good product with high battery life, but the speeds are still pretty slow," he said.

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