by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, June, 2002
This is the continuation of my impressions of COMDEX Chicago 2002, and I'll cover the biggest and flashiest trend, convergence in wireless communications, of the mobile kind.

Basically, everybody wants to do everything. The people who make mobile phones, usually represented by the various mobile phone service providers, are adding e-mail, Web browsing and text messaging to their mobile phones. The really ambitious ones are going one (major) step further and adding PDA-style (Personal Digital Assistant) computing functions to their phones.

Pretty much all of the phones on display at the show now support text messaging. With the recent standardization of SMS (Short Message Service), you can send these messages to anyone whose phone and provider support SMS. In the past, you could only send messages to other customers of your own provider, and even that feature could be location dependent.

The more sophisticated phones added Web browsing and e-mail. Depending upon the model, you might be limited to Web pages and e-mail that support WAP (Wireless Applications Protocol), a specially abbreviated, text only method of accessing pages and mail. If the original document doesn't directly support WAP, a gateway computer can try to do a translation by stripping off all extraneous material.

WAP harks back to my good news, bad news theme from past month. The good news is, with only text to worry about, transmission is effectively much faster, and less scrolling is needed to view things. If you have tried to see either Web pages or e-mail on any normal-sized mobile phone, you know how important that scrolling factor is.

On the other hand, with WAP some pages and e-mails just don't translate well and their meaning is garbled or partially lost. Also, there are times when you really want to see graphics or tabular info in its original format. With WAP, you don't have that choice.

Optimum use of the inherently limited connection speed of a mobile phone isn't exactly an unimportant consideration, regardless of exactly what type of signaling method is used. If you use a simple dial-up connection via your standard mobile phone transmitter, you will probably get only about 9.6kbps (thousands of bits per second). If you use some type of reserved, out-of-band communications method, such as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) you might get something in the 30-40kbps range, similar to what you would get on a land line. Note that it is important to state that these are the real, in-the-field, numbers. The oft-quoted theoretical values, especially for the out-of-band methods, are a lot higher than what you really get. (Your mileage may differ!)

The really fancy mobile phones also have PDA functions, ranging from simple address/calendar programs on up to running one of the two most common PDA operating environments, Palm and Pocket PC. Kyocera displayed quite a nice Palm-based unit at the show. It looks like a standard mobile phone on steroids. The keypad flips down to access the Palm keys.

Coming from the other side of the industry, PDAs are adding mobile phone communications. They already have PDAs that access the Web and e-mail, either via internal receivers or through add-on modems. The newest models have added mobile phone functionality.

The flashiest presence at the show - for any product, not just PDAs - was the RIM BlackBerry. (For some reason, I keep telling people about the RaspBerry PDA. It's starting to get embarrassing.) RIM has turned their popular product into a mobile phone. Just plug in the earphone and start dialing. Naturally you can access the Web and get your e-mail, too.

A big advantage of the BlackBerry is that it has an actual keyboard. Even for SMS messages, a keyboard is a lot easier to use, and a lot more accurate, than either scribbling with a stylus or triple tapping a phone keyboard.

An even better implementation of a wireless convergence device at the show was the HandSpring Treo 180. HandSpring started out with a Palm-based PDA with enhanced applications and added full mobile phone features. Unlike the BlackBerry, this includes a normal phone-type microphone and speaker, positioned as you would expect in a flip-top phone - in this case a really big flip-top phone, though a smaller than average PDA. It's also a speakerphone. Of course, the Palm features integrate with the phone features.

For good measure, the keyboard has a much better feel than the BlackBerry, which is vital to maintain speed when your thumbs block most of the keyboard at any given time. As a Palm-based computer, it can also run any Palm-compatible application - and there are a lot of them out there.

Please note that I am not completely unprejudiced regarding the Treo, as I bought a pair of them for my wife and myself a few weeks after the show. The keyboard is so fast and easy to use that we are both hopelessly addicted to blasting SMS messages to each other and just about anyone else we encounter who has an SMS-capable phone. Even my chunky thumbs really fly over the keyboard.

One really odd sub-trend at the show had corporate sales reps of various phone companies hawking the games that you can play on their phones. I still haven't figured out why, if you specialize in selling mobile phone service to large corporations, you would openly promote a way for your customers' employees to both waste their time and waste valuable mobile phone minutes as well.

What's next? Perhaps they will come up with a line of PDAs that include a dual-books expense account system, one for the real amounts and one for the amounts you report to your company. For maximum marketing effect, perhaps they could license the ENRON brand name.

©2002, Wayne M. Krakau