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The Wireless World

  • August 27, 2002
  • By Prentice Hall
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Similarly, the first 3G systems have not lived up to expectations, but they eventually will. GSM, now the world's most popular mobile system, was first developed in the early 1990s. At the time, few customers wanted it, and it was written off as a failure. Today, more than 10% of the Earth's population carries a GSM phone.

Among the more interesting uses for 3G and other wireless technology:

  • Videophones. Combining a Web cam and a mobile phone with a Palm-type device, these also allow fast access to the Web. They're already here, but not popular. It's likely that they never will be, but the technology exists if people want it.
  • Voice Recognition. The cumbersome twentieth-century method of entering text into phones will eventually be abandoned as phones gain the ability to recognize and understand human commands, even against the background noise of the mobile environment. In 1999, British Telecom predicted that it would be widespread by 2002. In 2001, the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) Forum predicted some point between 2005 and 2010, which is more realistic.
  • Web Phones. In 2000, many mobile phone manufacturers said that everything they sold would be Web-enabled by 2002. This prediction was largely right, though often using more primitive WAP technology, rather than the true "Web."
  • Retinal Displays. British Telecom predicted in 1999 that these would be possible by 2003. They will use tiny projectors mounted in the frames of glasses to shine images directly onto a user's retina, allowing access to information services while walking around or interacting with other people. More cumbersome goggles are already available, but they don't permit contact with the real world: Users must immerse themselves completely in virtual reality.
  • Wireless LAN Ubiquitous. Many analysts predict that wireless LAN antennas will be standard on all computers by 2005. They are already built into most high-end laptops.
  • All Phones Become Mobile. The difference in cost between mobile and fixed telephony has all but disappeared in some areas. Analysts predict that mobile operators will eventually have to rely on value-added services to make their money. Phone numbers will refer to people, not places. British Telecom predicts that, by 2006, the idea of standing in a fixed spot while making a call might seem rather quaint.
  • Internet on Mars. NASA is planning to launch a series of communications satellites into Martian orbit, all based on the same standard protocols as the Internet. The network should be running by 2008, then extended outward in the following decades and centuries.
  • Internet Appliances. Some members of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group predict that, by 2010, it will be rare to find new white goods—refrigerators, dishwashers, and the like—that do not have a built-in Internet connection. The Net will be as ubiquitous as microchips became in the 1990s.
  • Remote-Controlled Cars. Researchers in government and industry are already working on these: Japan hopes to have one operational before 2015, and in 2001, the U.S. government approved a communications system in dedicated spectrum. Roads will be made safer as powerful traffic computers take over driving, preventing accidents and automatically routing every vehicle via the most efficient path.
  • Holophones. British operator Orange predicts that, by 2020, mobile phones will be able to project three-dimensional moving images of people and other objects.
  • Mind Reading. British Telecom predicts that, by 2025, thought recognition will become the standard form of input. Primitive mind-reading techniques were used by computer games in the 1990s, but this technology will be used on a far greater scale. Machines will act as an extension of the user's body. Making a call in a public place will no longer disturb others.

    The same researchers predict that, five years later, this could evolve into a full, direct brain link. People will have wireless data devices hardwired into their brains, allowing instant telepathic communication. Learning will become obsolete because high-speed networks will allow people to access the sum total of all human knowledge as easily as they access their own memories. Such technology raises all kinds of objectionable possibilities, from Star Trek's Borg to a literal thought police.


Back in the real world, choosing a cell phone can be a complicated decision. Beware of slick salespeople offering "free" phones, often with bundled accessories and other freebies, such as televisions or computers. They require you to sign a service contract that lasts at least a year and can be difficult to get out of after that. The companies make up more than the cost of the phone in monthly service charges, and most people end up paying hundreds of dollars.

This isn't to say that all the cheap or free phones are necessarily a bad thing; it's standard practice in many countries for the operators to subsidize the cost of phones, and sometimes the service contracts offered are good value. But it is important to shop around. "Prepay" deals with no contract attached may be better if you need a phone only for emergency use, whereas if you want Internet access, it may be worth turning down the free phone in favor of a more advanced model.

Each mobile operator typically offers many rate schedules and payment plans, seemingly designed to confuse. In general, paying a high monthly line rental leads to reduced per-minute charges. But even for the same monthly fee, there are usually choices, such as how much to pay for different kinds of calls and whether international roaming is allowed. Pick the wrong one and you could end up paying far too much, or you may even find that your phone doesn't work when you most need it.


Companies like Nokia freely admit that many of their phones are sold on appearance, not features. They target specific models at groups they call "posers" and "yuppies." A case in a fashionable color will often prove more popular than Internet access or long battery life, and visual appearance is expected to become more important as the diversity among users widens. The same applies to other mobile devices; the most sought-after Palm PDAs tend to be those with the most stylish case, not the most technically advanced.

The trend toward stylishness could continue as computers move from functional devices to consumer products, but phones won't become less functional. Most manufacturers plan to build some kind of wireless Internet capability into all of their mobile phones, along with basic computer functions. There is already a wide choice of phones and other devices based on WAP and similar standards, with better services that approach the quality of the wired Web on the way.

If you want the mobile Internet now, your choices depend mainly on where you live. In Europe and America, WAP is becoming ubiquitous. Most analysts agree that it is more of a gimmick than a true wireless Internet service, but it could still be worthwhile. WAP's main problem has been that users needed to dial in to a computer to use it, meaning they are charged for every second spent online and can't make phone calls at the same time. In Japan, the i-mode system overcomes both these problems and has become more successful than anyone predicted. New 2.5G and 3G technologies could enable WAP to do the same.

The most successful wireless data services don't mean accessing the Web at all. Short messaging, originally intended just to test the capability of GSM phones, is hugely popular in both Europe and Japan. Messages are still fairly primitive because they're limited to a few characters, rather like telegrams from many decades ago. Emerging standards will change this, adding multimedia and, more importantly, integration with Internet e-mail.

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