Reporter's Notebook: Conferencing Goes Wireless

BARCELONA (07/13/2000) - Far too often, attending a conference with back-to-back presentations and/or panel discussions is an inherently passive experience -- and unless the speakers have something interesting to say, it can be downright boring.

Those days may well be over, thanks to wireless advances.

Signing in for the inaugural Go Mobile Europe conference in Barcelona earlier this week, I was asked to sign papers that would allow me the use of an IBM Corp. ThinkPad T20 notebook PC for the length of the event, and to pay a hefty US$4,000 if it went missing. Conference attendees not signing the papers could only use the ThinkPads chained to desks. As I was already carrying a notebook, I politely declined the offer.

"That means that you can only use the ThinkPad when you are sitting at your assigned seat," noted the helpful staffer. "Are you sure you don't want it?"

I tapped the shoulder bag where my own (or my employer's, actually) notebook resided, and assured her that carrying one was quite enough, thank you. By now, the alarm bells in the back of my inherently suspicious mind were ringing loud.

Assigned seat, signing up for a $4,000 notebook, what kind of conference is this?

Entering the main conference hall, attendees were met by a virtual forest of brightly lit ThinkPad screens. By the time I located my assigned seat, I noticed that attached to each notebook was also a C3 model Workpad, the IBM-branded version of Palm Inc.'s handheld device.

A few minutes later, Gerry Purdy, the president and chief executive officer of event organizer Mobile Insights Inc., kicked off his opening remarks by showing the all-too familiar slide listing the corporate sponsors of the conference.

Not surprisingly, IBM's blue logo was at the top of the list.

Noting that the press colleague seated next to me was furiously tapping away on his keyboard composing what looked like an e-mail message, I suddenly noticed the wireless LAN (Local Area Network) card antenna sticking out of the PC Card slot on the side of the notebooks. I looked up at the sponsor list and sure enough, there was the logo of Wayport Inc., an Austin, Texas-based ISP (Internet service provider) specializing in wireless LAN deployments at airports and hotels.

Meanwhile, Purdy was setting the stage for the two-day conference by giving the attendees instructions on how the wireless LAN set-up would provide for interaction between speakers and the audience.

Attendees would be able, via the wireless LAN, to rate each presentation and product demonstration session, as well as pose written questions that the moderators then could forward to participants in panel discussions, Purdy noted. "At the end, we will present awards to the winners, based on yours, the attendees' ratings."

Now my interest was piqued. Could this mean that we would be free from the usual show-of-hands or please-press-the-white-button formula, and, my personal pet peeve, the people lining up at microphones to hold mini speeches in lieu of asking questions?

Pleasantly enough, to a large degree we were. Ironically, one of the few show-of-hands questions posed to the attendees suggested that only a small proportion had already deployed wireless technology in their organizations.

For some attendees, being able to access the Internet during presentations also allowed them to simultaneously check out each company's Web site for more information. Others, however, used duller presentations to catch up on their e-mail.

"I think this is a great way to do a conference, and I've been able to keep in touch with the office throughout," said one attendee, an IT worker at a European company who asked not be identified.

Inadvertently, however, the limitations of wireless communications were also on show at the conference.

Swedish telecommunications equipment and mobile phone vendor L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co., for example, cancelled an on-stage demonstration of its new WAP (wireless application protocol)-enabled R380 handset, due to connectivity problems in the conference hall, which was located in the basement of a hotel.

Nick Hunn, research and development director at London-based TDK Systems Europe Ltd., also noted that the emerging Bluetooth wireless personal area network would pose a problem for wireless LAN installations.

Both Bluetooth and IEEE's 802.11/802.11b wireless LAN specifications are 2.4GHz technologies that will be fighting for the same spectrum. The problem is that simultaneous use will cause interference as well as performance degradation, Hunn said. [See "The Good, the Bad and the Reality About Bluetooth,"July 10.]IT managers who already have or are planning to deploy wireless LANs will be facing a serious dilemma, as one of the most given applications for Bluetooth will be wireless headsets for use with mobile phones, Hunn said.

"It will take a brave IT manager indeed to ban mobile phones from the office," Hunn noted.

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