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Wireless Roadmap for Devices

A wide range of wireless devices operate over the Internet. Mobile devices effectively form the new exterior surface of a web site. Wireless Internet devices are being designed by the computer and telecommunications industries about every two years, forcing programmers to reevaluate server architecture and to track the new ones.

All mobile devices have one thing in common: They all have radios. This lets them operate over wireless networks to exchange content. Wireless devices ultimately differ based on the type of wireless network and class of application they serve, as shown in Table 1. Wireless devices operate over three wireless network groups: PAN, LAN, and WAN. The four wireless application families are messaging, web browsing, interactive, and conversational. Keeping the technology of devices, networks, and applications in mind will help you give your mobile audiences new purpose with the wireless application and architecture you build. It's the device that lets the mobile person send and receive the content—the valued commodity of the wireless Internet.

Table 1 Wireless Devices, Networks, and Applications




Web phone





Web browsing




Voice Portal



Web PC



Communicating Appliance



Six Wireless Device Classes Mobilize the Internet

The total landscape of wireless devices is staggering. The great wireless devices of our time now include the programmable Nextel i85s Java Phone, the beautiful Japanese i-mode and colorful FOMA phones, the CISCO VoIP phones, the useful Rim 957 pager with its miniature keyboard, the business-oriented wireless Ethernet Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC, the slick Palm handheld, the all-purpose data and voice Handspring Treo, the Symbol industrial handhelds, and emerging Internet communicating devices like the Ricoh 700 camera and the Wherify bracelet locators. While device vendors promote their product lines, it's necessary to give developers a realistic view of the entire market for wireless devices so that their servers can reach all of these devices.

Six wireless device classes cover the general form factors available on the wireless Internet (see Figure 1). The most useful grouping for a wireless Internet developer is the web phone, handheld, pager, voice portal, web PC, communicating appliances. Programmers often think of these devices as miniature PCs. However, one great improvement is these are all instant-on devices. They don't take minutes to boot. Most have special technology to persist data so that a user never loses anything.

Figure 1 Six wireless device classes.

Web Phone

The web phone is the primary mass-market wireless Internet cellular device. The Japanese lead with beautiful i-mode phones with color screens. The average European sends more than one web phone message a day, and they don't need WAP to use SMS (Short Message System). In North America, people use all kinds of web phones. At the beginning of 2001, there were 600 million cell phones; of these, 10% were Internet-enabled. By 2005, a billion Internet-capable web phones are expected. Make no mistake; people buy these primarily for voice calls. By then, manufacturers will only make Internet-capable cellular phones.

The most used web phone Internet feature is sending and receiving short messages. This saves money over the cost of a voice call and communicates messages at a time when both parties don't need to be available. Whereas handhelds and pagers often have full-text keyboards, most cell phones have only a small numeric keyboard. It's challenging to enter text on cell phones, but the Europeans, who transmit an enormous number of web phone messages, have made an art of it—called gisting. The art of transmitting the gist of a message is to send the fewest number of letters and still make sense. As with most SMS messages, such as "CUL8R," reading each letter out loud makes sense of the message. 911 means emergency. (Ironically, this U.S. emergency phone code is also the date of the tragic atrocity.)

Actually, a telecommunications carrier selects the web phone, and they require a connection to one of their wide area network (WAN) air interfaces to perform. NTT DoCoMo created a market beyond messaging with their i-mode service, which reaches simple web sites. WAP vendors are still trying to approach their success. Only in 2001 has a new breed of web phones been designed to be programmable with J2ME and BREW.


The wireless device that gets most of the work done in the U.S. is the handheld, often operating with a wireless 802.11 network. While a web phone needs a wireless connection to work, the handheld doesn't. The handheld is a small programmable computer with storage, a full keyboard, and usually a touch-sensitive display. Some handhelds have modular slots to add peripheral cards. The handheld is also called a personal digital assistant (PDA); a communicator; a Connected Device Configuration (CDC) platform (by Sun); or a handheld PC or HPC (by Microsoft). As of 2000, there were 10 million handhelds, of which 3% were Internet-enabled. By 2003, the forecast is for 30 million Internet-enabled handhelds.

There are two classes of handheld—the consumer and the industrial. They differ largely in environmental packaging. The handhelds used by the consumer and small businesses are based predominantly on the PalmOS and Microsoft WinCE OS, although Linux is becoming viable. Industrial handhelds are rugged and built for business vertical markets. Companies like Symbol, Intermec, Itronix, and Psion make them.

Successfully used in the industrial handhelds for many years, multiform modules became a key distinction of the Handspring handheld. Their device improved on the Palm handheld by adding a modular slot so the device could be reconfigured to become a scanner, camera, or cell phone. The Handspring slot doesn't use a standard PC card specification, so it can't use the many off-the-shelf mobile peripheral devices. Not to be outdone, Palm also created new devices with standard secure digital (SD) card slots.

Although both industrial and consumer handhelds work offline in a connectionless mode, the industrial version automatically connects to wireless networks as needed—usually over a local area network (LAN) rather than the commercial wide area network (WAN). When no connection is present, the handheld has enough storage for a mobile worker to complete tasks.


The pager is a hidden gem, ideal for quick and inexpensive exchange of information. It uses a well-established long-range paging network to receive and send data. Pager class characteristics include some interesting varieties. Most people think of the original one-way pager that only receives paging codes. But the two-way pager, introduced by Motorola and Skytel and made popular by RIM, has changed everything. An uplink pager (also known as a pinger, beacon, or active badge) is a low-powered one-way sending pager that transmits telemetry and even location. These units are commonly used for asset management, such as tracking of vehicles and major equipment. Even pets and children can be tracked by a Wherify locator.

Voice Portal

A voice portal is a natural-voice interface that runs on a server to give subscribers a dialogue. It listens to speech, calculates a reply, and then speaks a response. To some degree, voice-command systems can provide a verbal interface for cellular phones, but only a voice portal has the power to provide a fully-functional dialogue. What's appealing about voice portals is that they're accessible by any cellular phone or any of the two billion wired telephones. In 1999, U.S. consumers did $430 billion in commerce over the phone, more than ten times the worldwide web purchases ("VoiceXML in the Enterprise: Facts and Fiction," Tellme Networks Inc., 2000). The leader of this market, Nuance, sees the Internet as the voice web to enable v-commerce (voice-driven electronic commerce). Another important company, SpeechWorks, specializes in voice recognition. Other voice portal service providers include Tellme, Portico, Wildfire, and BeVocal—each with VoiceXML developer programs.

Web PC

Personal computers are not particularly mobile, but they're an important part of a personal mobile application. The PC provides a springboard for a Palm handheld and a web phone. A PC is useful for wholesale web site access that can later be accessed by mobile devices. I suppose anything is wireless if you slap an antenna onto it. But the PC and even laptops or notebooks have proven to be poor mobile devices. At best, they can be put on wheels and treated as mobile stations, as long as they're near a power supply. This is what Fujitsu did in the home healthcare market with its tablet PCs in the mid-1990s. Microsoft is now working on a tablet PC with wireless adapters. It's as full-featured as any laptop, more lightweight, and has a rich handwriting interface.

Communicating Appliance and Component Devices

If you want to play Internet radio on your home stereo, why buy a PC with a color screen to listen to a radio station? Consumer electronics devices are being produced as low-cost dedicated Internet devices, some of which are wireless. Phones and PCs are now being divided into radio-controlled components that communicate with one another. The generic name iAppliance, short for Internet appliance or information appliance, is a specialized gadget designed as a single application. As a communicating appliance, the iAppliance is not like the adaptable, configurable, and reprogrammable personal computer. iAppliances are dedicated devices with a very minimal interface. They connect with the Internet and are tuned to a specific content channel. In this growing category are IP-based pingers, wearable medical jackets, smart cards, automotive telematics, wireless cameras, picture frames and other home devices.

It's also becoming clear that as we miniaturize computers, their components will have miniature antennas to let each part connect. According to DoCoMo research, machine-to-machine-based IP communication will be the dominant use of the wireless Internet by 2010. By then, they expect at least three times as many of these devices as web phones, pagers, and handhelds.

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