Internet to go
- By Michelle Speir
- Mar 04, 2001
Wireless. It's quite a buzzword these days, especially when it comes to
the Internet. The prospect of anywhere/ anytime Web access without having
to worry about plugging into a network or finding a telephone outlet is
an alluring one.
Today, wireless Internet capability is appearing on all kinds of portable
devices, from cellular phones to notebook computers. Advertisements trumpet
the amazing convenience of checking e-mail and surfing the Web from places
such as airports, restaurants and cabs.
To explore the reality behind the hype, our test center tried three
types of handheld wireless devices a Hewlett-Packard Co. Pocket PC, a
Palm Inc. computing device and a Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) handheld
e-mail appliance choosing one representative of each type.
All of these devices can fit in a pocket or purse for the ultimate in
portability. And all of the devices come bundled with desktop synchronization
software and a cradle that connects to a desktop PC so users can synchronize
e-mail, appointments, tasks and more between the handheld and desktop.
A Matter of Compromise
For all their promise, however, handheld Internet devices are inherently
riddled with compromises. The smaller the device, the less processing power,
memory and screen area it has, not to mention inconvenient input methods.
Increasing these variables to achieve better performance results in a larger
Battery life is another trade-off. A full-color screen drains much more
power than a monochrome display, and as screen size increases, so does the
power requirement. Therefore, the better the display, the more battery power
is needed. And increased power means increased battery size and weight.
Web sites themselves present another problem. They are designed for
desktop computers with large full-color screens, mice for easy navigation,
fast processors and lots of memory; therefore, they don't translate well
to devices with tiny keypads, no pointing device, small monochrome displays
and limited memory.
In addition, the graphics and animation on most Web sites would severely
bog down wireless transactions, and these small devices don't have enough
memory or processing power to handle that much information.
This problem has been mitigated in several ways. Palm has developed
query applications that use a process the company calls "Web clipping."
These applications strip out animation and graphics.
The catch is that a Web-clipping application must be written for each
Web site a Palm user can access. However, developers can create their own
Web-clipping applications and post them on Palm's wireless Web site (www.palm.net) for anyone with a Palm VII or Palm VIIx to download for free.
According to Palm, thousands of developers are doing this, so the list of
sites available to Palm users is increasing every day.
At the same time, Web developers are also designing versions of their
sites specifically for wireless access by other third-party providers. Be
aware, however, that not all providers are compatible with all handheld
platforms. For example, OmniSky Corp.'s OmniSky service (www.omnisky.com)
only supports the Palm V, Handspring Inc. Visor and HP Jornada 540 series.
On the other hand, WolfeTech Corp.'s PocketGenie (www.wolfetech.com) supports
various pagers, Web- enabled phones and personal digital assistants. Also,
each service has a set list of sites it can access although most services
offer hundreds of sites.
But perhaps the most exciting news is that Web content services are
beginning to develop wireless browsers that can read HTML, making every
existing Web site available to handheld users. GoAmerica Inc.'s Go.Web (www.goamerica.com) is the only service we know of that currently offers this
kind of access across all handheld platforms. And WolfeTech is developing
an HTML wireless browser that will be compatible with all RIM devices.
(The release date has not been set.)
The connections themselves also have limitations. Wireless data networks
don't reach areas underground or deep inside buildings. If you can't make
a cell phone connection, you probably can't make a wireless Internet connection.
However, most handheld Internet devices enable users to download content
and then browse the information offline. So with a little advance planning,
it's possible to peruse Internet content on an airplane or in the subway.
When you do connect, prepare to be patient. Information retrieval can
take anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute or slightly more. Connection time
can be slower during peak Internet use times or if users are outside urban
To address connection problems, some software companies have developed
"channels," which are Web sites designed specifically for offline viewing
on a handheld. One company offering this service is AvantGo Inc. (www.avantgo.com),
which offers more than 400 AvantGo channels in addition to live Internet
browsing for the Palm Operating System, Microsoft Corp. Windows CE and Web-enabled
phones all for free. Another service, Mobile Channels, is offered by Microsoft
partners (www.microsoft.com/windowsce/channels). These channels are also
free, but this service does not offer live browsing.
Three for the Road
We tested the Jornada 545 Pocket PC from HP, the Palm VIIx and the BlackBerry
wireless e-mail solution from RIM. We set out to discover just how practical
or impractical these devices are and whether they're viable for business
use or closer to novelty toys.
The handheld Web browsing experience was essentially the same for all
three models. Users first choose a broad category such as news, entertainment,
traffic or weather. Each category is then broken into subcategories or lists
of sites. The information retrieved appears as text.
The bottom line is that none of the devices came close to replicating
Web browsing on a desktop computer, and e-mail functionality varies depending
on the device. But despite the limitations, they do offer a level of convenience
unmatched by desktop PCs or mobile devices without wireless capability.
We also found that wireless connection ability and speed is generally consistent
across the different types of devices, and much of the same information
is accessible via the different Web content services.
When selecting a handheld to buy, consider the hardware features as
well as the operating system. Input and navigation can be quite different
between devices. Some feature a stylus and touch screen, while others offer
thumb-sized keypads and clickable scroll wheels. Some operating systems
are more robust than others, and some devices offer color displays while
many are monochrome.