November 3, 2000

The future of wireless: Extremely localized information

Author: JT Smith

By Grant Gross
Managing Editor

Several Open Source companies are on the forefront of the next generation of wireless innovations, from extremely localized information and advertising to handheld Internet devices you can carry almost anywhere.

There's not room enough in one story to detail everything that's going on in the Open Source wireless industry, with Linux a preferred operating system for handhelds that don't have room for code bloat. But several companies are looking beyond the current landscape to the next cool technology you just can't live without.

Keith Bigelow, director of product management for Lutris Technologies, which recently announced a new Lutris Enhydra Wireless Java/XML application server that supports every major wireless protocol, sees interesting things happening with global positioning systems and personal wireless devices.

Imagine calling for a taxi, without having to figure out what address you're at. Or as a tourist in Washington, D.C., dialing into the Internet on your handheld and getting directions from the White House to Arlington National Cemetery. "There is a large group of people who love the idea of location-based services," Bigelow says.

Sandro Grignetti, senior architect with frontpath, makers of the Linux-powered ProGear handheld Internet device, said the dollar signs start glowing in marketers' eyes when they talk about localized advertising, such as the sales in the mall around the corner from where you're standing. However, the possibilities for pinpointing go beyond advertising to services, such as a step-by-step tour of the city you're visiting and the special of the day at every restaurant within a five-block radius of where you stand.

"I don't think in terms of how you'll make money; I think in terms of what's cool and useful," Grignetti says.

Ergonomic devices

Grignetti's company wants to make the Internet available wherever you are by attacking the issue of providing useable devices people can carry with them. The ProGear device features a touch screen, a 10.4-inch flat-panel screen, and a 400-Mhz Transmeta TM3200 processor. Its integrated USB hub allows users to hook up a keyboard and mouse, and ProGear comes with 64 or 128 MB of system memory or an option of a 6.4 GB hard disk drive.

The form of handhelds is a major factor in the public's embrace of wireless services, according to Grignetti. "We spent a lot of time thinking about the ergonomics of interacting with the Internet," he says.

The ultimate way to interact with wireless devices will come when computer processors reach 1.5 gigahertz, and they can fit into handhelds, he adds. At that speed, the handhelds will be able to use "natural" voice recognition software, instead of the less natural "I space received space your space email period" voice recognition products handhelds are experimenting with now.

"Ultimately, anything that requires a couple of hands isn't useful when you're on the go," Grignetti says. "When you're at work, you have two hands, but the rest of the time, you don't want to have to use both hands."

ProGear's connection allows users to be up to 300 feet away from the base network, and ProGear, with a price tag of about $1,500, has data transmission speeds up to 11 megabits per second.

Grignetti acknowledges that bandwidth itself remains a big issue for widespread handheld use, but the need for more connection speed becomes a never-ending cycle. "We're never going to have enough bandwidth," he says. "The more bandwidth we get, the more we use."

Islands of high-speed connections

Taking a different approach to the use of connections is Axis Communications, which is marketing a new, palm-sized Linux-based device, called the Bluetooth Access Point, that makes it possible for wireless devices with Bluetooth transmitters to access local networks as well as each other.

The product allows handheld users to set up limited-range wireless networks anywhere, without obtaining an expensive third-generation wireless network license from the FCC. Think of it as wireless for the masses; Lundberg compares the current "telco-centric" wireless landscape to proprietary Internet providers like America Online, and Axis' vision to the unencumbered Internet.

"The licensing for wireless space is only for the really big players with deep pockets," says Linus Lundberg, director of corporate business development at Axis. "[With the Bluetooth Access Point] now, all of the sudden, it's not only the telcos who give you access to wireless devices."

Lundberg sees many uses for wireless networks with a range of 200 to 300 meters, from malls delivering maps to museums providing information on exhibits. With a mobile Internet server, the network can manage users who come in and out of the network. "As soon as you walk into the network, the services are available," Lundberg says. "We see all kinds of opportunities to provide personalized and content-specific services."

In the future, Lundberg sees "islands" of short-range wireless connections with transfer rates of 50 to 72 megabits per second. Imagine moving pictures on your handheld. "With those speeds you can do anything you want with video, etc.," Lundberg says.

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