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Why Is Wireless Taking So Long?

By Paul A. Greenberg
Dec 1, 1999 12:00 AM PT

The one development that may single-handedly change the landscape of electronic commerce is wireless communication. So why is it taking so long for us to have it in general use?

Why Is Wireless Taking So Long?

The answer is complex. It's about technology, standardization, consumer expectations and deciding which applications are most desirable to the largest number of users.


Now that the technological wizards have whetted our appetites for Internet access via our cell phones, operational problems remain. The phones have gotten smaller, the batteries are wearing out faster -- sometimes in less than a day -- and connections are often substandard. It won't help us to have e-mail on our cell phones if the batteries die in mid-transmission.

Europe is ahead of the U.S. in this regard, because their telephone service is more standardized and data providers do not have to deal with multiple cellular companies to transmit the data.


If you haven't heard of Bluetooth, you probably will soon. It's a new standard that is light years ahead of existing technologies and has the endorsement of some industry powerhouses, including IBM, Intel and Nokia.

Bluetooth's makers claim that it can link gadgets as far as 30 feet away that are separated by walls. In a few years, that figure will supposedly stretch to 300 feet.

Bluetooth, which is said to be 17 times faster than a modem, is set to debut within a few months. Consider the freedom of downloading graphics from the Internet and transferring it through your cell phone to your office in another city, where colleagues can examine the graphics on their PCs.

Global Standardization

While Bluetooth is ready to take center stage any day now, global standardization still seems to be years away. This situation has much to do with some companies' skepticism about market demand for global service, as well as fierce competition that exists among competing carriers.

Some customers can already use their phones in markets around the world, but it is not common. AT&T is pushing hard for inter-continental telephone technology, forging an alliance with British Telecommunications PLC for an international venture that would offer service on both sides of the Atlantic.


Wireless providers are still divided on what services are needed soonest and by the most people. Although it may be simple technology to allow users to instantly check stock market activity, chances are that the majority of users don't need or want to.

In the future, people may be more interested in the ability to download digital cash into a bank card or to access directions to the closest ATM machine. Also, maps and city direction services might appeal to a wide audience.

Untethered Sooner Than You Think

Phone.com, a wireless device software developer, predicts that more than half of the world's estimated one billion mobile phone subscribers in 2003 will be connected to the Internet.

Still, even if that prediction is a bit ambitious, wireless has many development miles to go before efficiency meets demand.

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