April 2001

The Wireless Web


It seems as though we have all grown so busy that we do not have even a moment to stop and browse the Web anymore. Wouldn’t it be convenient if we could access the Web on the go? It seems our hopes for a “wireless” Web have been realized! “The Wireless Web: Special Report,” in the October 2000 issue of Scientific American, explains how this wireless Web works.

Using the wireless Web, we can access the Internet from our cellular phones, handheld computers, and other portable devices. In the past, data networks have been cursed with incompatible standards, awkward user interfaces, high service charges, and problems with spectrum allocation. The fate of the wireless Web is looking brighter. The reliability and speed of data transmissions have been steadily improving, and it seems the wireless Web is slowly weaving itself into everyday life. To aid the wireless Web’s growth, companies are developing networks that can handle huge amounts of data and handheld gadgets that can tap into all of the Internet’s resources. Current devices are constrained by slow speeds of wireless transmission, which only average 10 kilobits per second-less than one fifth the data rate of a typical PC modem over a fixed telephone line. Fortunately, the future holds 3rd Generation (3G) wireless networks that could increase the data rates of mobile devices to up to two megabits per second.

Carriers in Japan deployed 3G wireless cell phone systems in late 2000. Europeans can look forward to 3G in 2002, and Americans should be using 3G systems by 2003. It must be noted that 3G is not a single standard of technology but rather a term used to describe several approaches to high-speed wireless Internet access. Most 3G networks will start off as hybrids to which new capabilities will be added as dictated by demand.

Europe and Asia will be converting from their current Global Standard for Mobile communications (GSM) to Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (W-CDMA). North America will be moving from Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) networks like those deployed by Sprint and GTE to W-CDMA and from Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) networks used by telephone companies such as AT&T and Southwestern Bell to Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution (EDGE). These systems have different advantages and disadvantages and are currently being tested to assess their viability.

Solutions may be More Complicated Then First Thought

Martin Cooper, credited with inventing the cell phone for Motorola in the early 1970s, criticizes 3G networks. Cooper says that users should only expect 64 Kbps from 3G networks at best-a definite improvement on current wireless networks but not significantly faster than ordinary modems. 3G, Cooper believes, is only a “baby-step” toward inexpensive high-speed wireless communication. Interestingly enough, Cooper is working on “smart antennas,” which he claims could provide 1 Mbps for each of 40 concurrent users. With smart antennas, signal processors, when attached to an antenna array, can beam radio signals precisely at individual users. As users move around, the smart antennas track them. Using antennas that are already in place and the signal processors that most base stations already have, smart antennas could be formed by simply upgrading the software rather than by implementing a new protocol, which requires new cellular hardware.

Unfortunately, a simple solution to the problems of achieving a fast, reliable wireless Web is probably only a dream for developers. Although consumers in Finland can already use their mobile phones to send text messages, pay their bills, get traffic reports, and buy coffee, it’s not enough. Upon the introduction of high-speed wireless Web access, we will be able to download audio, video, and other data-intensive files such as songs and movies into a handheld device. Because we obviously cannot watch a movie on a typical mobile phone, there must be devices in the works that are not your typical mobile phone.

Super Phones are Coming

Mobile phone manufacturers are experimenting with several designs for the handheld devices that will be used with the enhanced wireless networks of the future, one of which is the “super phone.” Super phones will have color screens several inches square for the presentation of high-resolution graphics and video; some will have keyboards and miniature mice for data input; but most will use touch sensitive screens and styluses like those now used by handheld devices like the Palm Pilot. In addition to carrying voice communications, super phones will be able to play music; almost all of the prototypes have earpieces that are separate from the body of the device, and many have headsets that hold both earpieces and a microphone so that users can speak, listen, and see the device’s screen all at the same time; many prototypes use low-power radio waves to transmit signals between the body of the device and the headset, thus eliminating wires. Lars Godell, an analyst for Forrester Research, predicts that most people will not have a need for these full-service super phones and that simpler smart phones will be much more common. It seems that smart phones will be limited to sending and receiving email, accessing the Internet, and possibly playing downloaded music.

Imagine what would be possible for technical publications? The possibilities are endless across many industries. Many technical publications departments support users who may not have access to an office or a computer, making online help or Web delivery useless. With the ability to perform sophisticated searches and download larger volumes of information to a cellular device, we can support user tasks in real time.

Because 71 percent of Finland’s population, 50 percent of other European nations’ populations, and 34 percent of the United States’ population are using mobile phones, it is certain that the demand for a useful wireless Web will spur the development of an effective network and user-friendly handheld devices. Although it may be years before either of these is achieved, we can be quite sure that both will eventually be here. As far fetched as these wireless networks and handheld technologies may seem, they are now a reality, and they will only improve.

It is time to start looking at how we deliver information on the Web and determine future needs in wireless technology. These new devices aren’t likely to support an Adobe Acrobat plug-in for PDF files, which is the delivery method favored by many technical publications organizations, and the search capabilities within Acrobat aren’t likely to support the retrieval of information at a useful level. How does your organization plan to address the challenges? Many organizations need to deliver more granular information that is relevant to the user’s task, so that information will be not only useful on the Web but also on up-and-coming wireless technologies. CIDMIconNewsletter