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The Day I Cut the Cord

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NEWSDAY

“I’ve got no strings

To hold me down

To make me fret, or make me frown... “

- Pinocchio

*

To the three basic necessities of life--food, shelter and clothing--add a fourth: AA batteries.

Living a wireless life in 2000 without batteries? Impossible. Never mind your laptops, PDAs and cellular phones. There would be no Walkman, no cool chirp to help you find your car in the parking lot and, worst of all, no way to jump from ESPN to ESPN2 without getting off the couch.

Consciously or not, we all experience wireless on one level or another. And whether you believe it or not, we have for years.

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The full-function television remote--which also controls the VCR, the cable box, the satellite receiver, the DVD player--is a wireless electronic stick that most of us take for granted. Ditto the cordless telephone, the remote garage door opener and the walkie-talkie monitor in the baby’s room.

I have a fan that can be set from gentle breeze to Force 3 gale with a wireless remote. With a button push from my living room, I can lock the doors and set the alarm on my Volkswagen Passat.

Admittedly, though, living the wireless life has gotten a lot more complicated lately.

Asked to live without wires for a few days as part of my job as Newsday’s digital “Gear” columnist, I found that it’s also helpful to know the difference between: WAP (Wireless Application Protocol--a programming technology that allows graphics-rich Web sites to be viewed on small hand-held devices) and HTML (the programing language of the Internet); between Bluetooth (a technology that lets devices communicate with each other in a small geographic area) and infrared (the invisible beam that carries digital information through the air); and between a Palm VII and a Palm VIIx (8 megabytes of memory and $100).

The premise of this story was simple: Spend a few days in the electronic ether, cutting the AC cords by utilizing as many wireless devices (and batteries) as I could muster. Sounds like fun, right? Especially since I didn’t have to shell out any cash for these gadgets, most of which were borrowed from manufacturers or service providers.

But I’ll tell you right off that I was not unhappy to be rid of most of them at the end of this assignment.

Maybe I’m just not the perfect candidate for the wireless Web. Often in my adventures with the Sprint PCS system and with my Palm VII wireless PDA (personal digital assistant), I’d dream of a historical reversal in technology solutions. Imagine the glee if there had been a Web before there was a telephone, and then Bell had invented it:

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“Yes, that’s right,” I’d be explaining right now, “you don’t have to type with those annoying small buttons, and you can actually speak to another person and hear all the words perfectly clearly!”

Which is why I made use of the Sprint instrument’s remarkably clear phone functions--including the reliable voicemail service--but rarely used it for e-mail. The Palm I reviewed was a nifty little novelty for the first day--I got caught up in reading the USA Today headlines about Slobodan Milosevic while on the Forest Hills subway platform--but its usefulness as a wireless device (its usefulness, period) diminished logarithmically.

On a WAP-enabled device such as my Sprint PCS Sanyo phone, selected (and usually condensed) data can be transmitted to the hand-held gadgets from specific servers.

Although hundreds of thousands of customers are signed up to use Sprint PCS’ wireless Web service, that represents just a fraction of cell phone users. I can understand why. The “mini-browser” that Sprint uses provides only “the most critical aspects” (Sprint’s words) of selected sites. The information available is heavy on headline news, sports scores, stock quotes and weather forecasts.

After a couple of days of checking barometric pressures and the price of Apple shares, it was boring.

So far, it seems to me an answer for which I have no question. It’s also slow and expensive, and no substitute for a full-flung, full-color surf on the Web via a laptop or desktop PC.

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Although it was a kick to constantly update scores of the American League’s wild-card race while mobile, my need for amusement was more satisfied by Sony’s color Watchman TV, with its fantastically sharp and clear screen.

You can’t always get reception for the stations you want with the Watchman, and you can’t get cable at the train station, obviously. But what you can get remains more interesting than anything that will come across a PDA.

On the road, the conventional attributes of the cell phone gave me some pleasure. This surprised me, because I wasn’t before convinced of the utility, let alone necessity, of a cell phone. I’m still not--perhaps because my job keeps me on a phone for hours a day. I made phone calls sometimes just to make phone calls; I can see where this could become a habit. A bad habit.

While I’m probably more of a bricks-and-mortar type guy, I did use the Palm VII to shop online at Amazon.com for a book, and that was a no-brainer (although slower than a call to the toll-free phone number). I was able to connect with the Domino’s Pizza Web site in hopes of ordering a thin-crust pepperoni online, but the Web site directed me to a local phone number.

According to researchers, only a fraction of Internet users worldwide--about 6%--access the Web via wireless technology. That is expected to increase as wireless services ramp up further in the United States.

“Wireless Net access is not surfing, but more of a gentle paddle,” said John Davison, a principal analyst for Ovum, a London-based research firm. Consumers will not browse the Net on mobile devices the way they do with PCs, and thus mobile devices won’t supplant fixed Internet access, experts say. Consumers already have multiple outlets to perform banking transactions or ticket purchasing, and the wireless Net will simply add one to the list.

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“With so many options, persuading people to try wireless ones is difficult,” Davison said.

According to Kathleen Dunleavy, a spokeswoman for Sprint PCS, wireless Web surfing will improve: The not-too-future phones will have larger display screens, extended-life batteries and storage devices for holding compressed audio--an MP3 music player, for instance.

Future technologies also hold the key to more pragmatic uses for wireless than I experienced.

Bluetooth, a technology developed by IBM, Toshiba, Intel and other electronics giants, employs a powerful shortwave radio frequency that allows electronic devices within yards of each other to communicate. This cordless connection--from a digital camera to a PC, for instance, or from a hand-held PDA to a cell phone--is imminent.

Although Bluetooth is optimized for local connectivity, there are prospects as well for those who travel farther than a few meters.

“GPRS--general packet radio service--will bring more speed to operations like calling to the Web on a cell phone,” said Ross Rubin, an analyst with Jupiter Communications in New York who follows wireless technology. Of course, GPRS, a communications service that offers improved data transfer that Rubin said is a year away, will require new equipment, and Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson are already preparing new phones for the system.

Longer term, there’s 3G: third-generation wireless networks. “The key is bandwidth, and 3G uses up to 2 megabytes of bandwidth per second,” Rubin said. Conventional bandwidth available today is less than 20 kilobytes per second.

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“Once you have greater bandwidth, you create a better experience accommodating more data on larger screens,” he said. “But 3G is at least four or five years away.’

IBM’s Jon Prial dreams a wireless dream: He expects by 2002 that 80% of Internet transactions will be on non-PC devices. Prial, IBM’s director of marketing and strategy for its Pervasive Computing division, is almost there: He checks airline departures on his Sprint PCS phone, and imagines a day when he’ll be able to receive his ticket that way as well.

“I see us going to a world of shorter, more immediate information,’ Prial said.

So the future appears to be packed with promise for the wireless soul--IBM earlier this year showed a working “wearable” portable PC with minimal wires. That’s serious progress in personal mobility.

Meanwhile, I’d trade in my wireless phone and wireless PDA right now for a portable CD player that comes with cordless headphones.

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