Wireless Web needs work

Much has been made of the "wireless revolution" and the possibilities that

are unleashed through cellular phones and personal digital assistants capable

of accessing the Internet. Most of us have yet to be exposed to the Internet-capable

versions of those devices, but most experts would agree that the role the

devices play in the business world — government included — will expand dramatically

in the next few years.

The number of cell phones being sold today that are Internet-capable

has grown tremendously just during the past 12 months. These devices carry

the promise of allowing their owners to fetch driving directions, make flight

and hotel reservations, shop online and check e-mail all from their cell

phones. If you've purchased a new cell phone recently, chances are it is

equipped with Internet access capabilities. Unfortunately, you are also

probably disappointed with how difficult and cumbersome its Internet capabilities

are.

Internet-enabled cell phones carry much promise, but in practice, the

Internet features are awkward and difficult to use for anything other than

scrolling through the latest news. The primary difficulty in using the cell

phone interface revolves around the lack of a usable keyboard and the terribly

small viewing screen.

Most phones require the user to type by toggling through the letters

on the dial pad. As a result, the exercise of typing in a simple destination

address to retrieve driving directions could require more than 50 keystrokes!

By the time you've entered in the address, waited for the server's reply

and scrolled through the directions, it may have been faster to make a call

and ask for the directions. The experience leaves one feeling frustrated

rather than connected.

Most will find PDAs, such as Palm Inc.'s Palm devices, much better-suited

for wireless Internet connectivity. The screen size of these devices is

typically much larger, allowing the user to read through text much more

conveniently. Similarly, data entry is much easier through either a mini-keyboard

or a scripting tool built into the device. As a result, the entire experience

is much more convenient and satisfying. Unfortunately, the cost of the devices

and the Internet access is still a bit steep for most users.

As one would expect, the bulk of government PDA users are busy executives

and frequent business travelers who rely on them for scheduling and contact

management. They are the obvious benefactors of the Internet-enabled handhelds.

Yet, clearly with the Internet component, these devices have tremendous

potential in government for mobile and remote applications. As a result,

we are likely to see these devices put to much more creative purposes in

government in the near future.

The Internet-enabled versions of the cell phone and the PDA still require

a great deal of refinement before they are ready for prime time. We are

likely to see these two devices converge in the near future as well. But

we've not even scratched the surface of the role they can play in the enterprise.

—Plexico is vice president and chief technology officer at Input, an IT market

research and marketing services firm.

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