By Steven Levy
We've been hearing for years about a future when we and our
machines are all connected-without wires. Finally, the pieces
are coming together. And family life won't be the same
10 issue - Is it finally time for the much-touted Wireless
Bang, when all our devices, appliances and gadgets suddenly
meld into a big goo of connectedness, and everything and everybody
is in touch with each other instantly and persistently? American
families can breathe a sigh of relief, because the answer
is no. We have yet to endure the Jetsonian vision of Internet
refrigerators that sound the alarm when the milk is low. We
do not currently receive instant messages from the Pottery
Barn after lingering at the store window for 40 seconds (
"If you walk in now, that leather ottoman in your field
of vision is 10 percent off..."). And we have yet to
tally up the considerable bills or contemplate the loss of
privacy that being always on, all the time, will entail.
ON THE OTHER HAND, there is a lot to look forward to when
the wireless experience arrives en toto. And come it will:
the future is a only a few years behind schedule. In fact,
components of the untethered world have been quietly appearing,
piece by piece. Wireless broadband networks are already in
place so that patrons of Starbucks and airport road warriors
can access the Internet while they sip or stew. Satellite-connected
cars are scolding drivers for missing a left turn. Millions
of families have resolved the nightly fights for the broadband
connection with wireless home networks like Apple's popular
$300 AirPort Base Station. Now they can stroll around the
house with laptops, lounge on decks and in living rooms, while
devouring the Internet at breakneck speed. And families everywhere
have learned that mobile phones or two-way pagers are great
stress reducers-a kid's quick "I'm OK" message tops
a Xanax any time.
a few years ago when people asked whether mobile phones will
take off, because you can get what you want from land-based
phones? Now you can't handle your life without one. It will
be the same for other forms of wireless, which is really suited
for our lifestyle-simplifying it, making it more fun."
- MARIA KHORSANDEricsson Technology Licensing, president
is just a taste of what will happen when we become
cybernomads, roaming the sometimes cruel terrain of the 21st
century with wireless devices as our constant companions,
and not missing a trick. Many of the frustrations of modern
life will be resolved, like getting a printer to work with
your camera, or making sure that the person you're trying
to urgently reach is indeed within your reach. Stray moments
of downtime-waiting in line for your latte or riding the subway-will
soon be opportunities to catch up on e-mail, update your stock
portfolio or join a foursome for bridge. "With a wireless
device you can do these things because it's on your person,"
says Joe Sipher, a vice president of PDA-maker Handspring.
Do you want to do those things?
Those developing the technologies are utterly convinced you
"Remember a few years ago when people asked whether mobile
phones will take off, because you can get what you want from
land-based phones? Now you can't handle your life without
one," says Maria Khorsand, president of Ericsson Technology
Licensing. "It will be the same for other forms of wireless,
which is really suited for our lifestyle-simplifying it, making
it more fun." So expect the already crowded radio spectrum
that accommodates wireless communications to be jammed more
tightly than a Volkswagen at a clown convention, as the air
around us fills with data. No wonder MIT calls its experimental
wireless initiative "Oxygen."
But will it be nourishing or toxic? That depends, in large
part, on us. "When we look at something like the wireless
revolution, we have to think of it not as a revolution in
technology but sociology," says Robert Blinkoff, an anthropologist
who has studied the wireless experience around the globe.
The good news is that sociology, and not just marketing, will
determine just how the wireless world unfolds. Interestingly,
consumers in countries like Japan and Finland have already
begun to establish their own style in relating to it. While
it is often observed that the Japanese have rapidly taken
to using mobile phones to connect to the Internet, perhaps
more significant is that young people in Japan see their phone
devices not as tools but companions. They personalize them
with exotic ring tones and distinctive images for the tiny
color screens. In the United States, however, wireless use
to date has focused mostly on two things: business productivity
and security. The former explains why one of the most talked
about wireless devices is the RIM (Research in Motion) company's
BlackBerry, a basic box with a thumb keyboard that reliably
handles e-mail. As for security, the value of going mobile
was reaffirmed in the wake of September 11. In New York City,
Mike Daisey, a writer who'd just happened into a Starbucks
in the financial district, opened up his laptop and instantly
connected with the wireless net it offers. He described the
devastation and e-mailed it to a list of 5,000 correspondents.
Join us on Wednesday, Dec. 5, at noon E.T. for a live talk
with Senior Editor Steven Levy, who oversaw the fourth installment
of the "Next Frontiers" technology series appearing
in this week's issue, to discuss how the wireless revolution
will impact your life.
As wireless moves to ubiquity, it will wind itself deeper
into the fabric of our lives, sometimes with uncertain consequences.
Take instant messaging. Even in its computer-based form it
can be addictive. But what if it were always available, allowing
for a constantly running dialogue between two best friends,
or mates, or parent and child? What would be the ground rules
for keeping it going, turning it off? "The great thing
and the bad thing about wireless is that you're always in
contact and always on," says Palm exec David Nagel. "Sometimes
you need to get away from your family."
Another problem deals with privacy and security. "There's
an indelible log of information about your daily activities
and my daily activities that passes through the communication
network," says Paul Henry, a researcher at AT&T Labs.
"The opportunity for abuse is just enormous." Before
this comes to pass, of course, there's work to do. (And venture
capitalists are eager to help out-wireless is the brightest
light in an otherwise stalled tech economy.) Right now, there's
a swarm of incompatible technologies. Users of each form distinct
techno-tribes. BlackBerry folks are hard-core business types
who want to make the most of every second and can afford the
costly monthly fees. Then there are the enhanced two-way pagers,
blessed with celebrity cachet. Motorola gives them away to
the likes of Adam Sandler and Kid Rock. The makers of mobile
phones are pinning their hopes on a standard known as 3G (for
third generation). It basically delivers broadband Internet
to phones. NTT DoCoMo's 3G headsets have little video cameras
in them so people can see each other when they talk. Nokia
has a model that plays MP3 music tunes.
connecting appliances to each other, there is Bluetooth. With
a current range of about 30 feet, it's strictly local. A Bluetooth-equipped
electric guitar could automatically transmit to the nearest
amp, and prospective Eric Claptons could wander from room
to room, trailing their guitar licks with them. After a slow
start, Bluetooth is getting a boost from companies like Sony.
"To us," says Sony America CEO Howard Stringer,
"wireless is the way to network all our devices."
But the star standard of the wireless world is geekily named
802.11b, pronounced like a math major's mantra: "eight-oh-two-eleven-bee."
Merciful marketers have produced a spiffier moniker: Wi-Fi.
Ever since Apple Computer presciently adopted it for its home-networking
scheme, it has been the breakout choice for local networks.
You can find it in hotels, airports and your corner Starbucks.
Wi-Fi punks in New York, Seattle and the Bay Area have organized
a movement to beam free 802.11 nets into busy public places.
Microsoft's Windows XP software has built-in support-if your
laptop has the $100 802.11 card, it can smell a hot spot and
link you in immediately. Expect Wi-Fi-equipped Internet radios,
TVs and maybe even that long-awaited Net Fridge. ' Ultimately,
we'll wind up with a hybrid system that seamlessly moves from
one scheme to another. In hot spots like your home or a coffee
shop, you can expect cheap, speedy Internet access. When you're
roaming or on some beach, you'll switch to more costly mobile-phone-style
the fun can begin. And so will the complications. In the home,
expect the estimated 3.5 million home computer networks to
multiply rapidly. The main use now is to share Internet connections-sibling
battles over Web access "have gone away," says Gary
Matos, an Intel exec with a home network. Now his problem
is that the kids spend too much time online, and he's had
to impose limits. With all that extra downloading, there can
be storage problems but the long-range vision includes an
"information furnace," a massive server in a closet
or the basement.
About 83 percent of U.S. workers remain in contact with their
office when vacationing for seven or more days, according
to a survey by consulting firm Accenture. The survey found
that: 60 percent of workers brought a mobile technology on
vacation; of those, 56 percent brought a cell phone, 16 percent
brought a laptop and 13 percent brought a pager.
of vacationers who brought their laptops checked work-related
e-mails. Of those who checked, 83 percent responded to them
while they were away.
check voicemail while on vacation and 54 percent of those
check at least once a day. Of those who checked their messages,
62 percent responded.
And you think you've seen ugly battles for the remote control?
Just wait until one device controls everything. Early next
year Universal Electronics will kick off a new era by introducing
Valhalla, a system that transfers the power of remotes to
other devices, like palmtops, Web pads or even a remote-control
watch called the Midas. Point to any appliance in the house
and, on the screen of a Valhalla device, a virtual remote
pops up to control it. Now here's the scary part: since it
can be hooked to the Internet the device might eventually
become a sort of cash register. "You might be watching
'Friends' and want to know what kind of sweater Ross is wearing,"
says Universal's Rob Lilleness. If the show's producers have
properly prepared the links, "you can point to the sweater
and impulse buy." One can only imagine what comes next.
Buy me the glasses of Ashleigh Banfield!
you leave the house, the action won't stop. Though the auto
industry initially overestimated how quickly the public would
adopt "telematics" (its term for connecting autos
to mobile phones, satellite navigation and the Internet),
it still expects drivers to ask dashboard-mounted units to
read back e-mail, make stock trades and link to the myriad
Web services provided by Microsoft or AOL that will remind
you to meet your nephew or warn you that your flight is canceled.
"Telematics will change the way we communicate: says
consultant Michael Heidingsfelder, who expects 44 million
cars to be connected by the end of the decade. Meanwhile,
marketers salivate at the idea of the Internet version of
the billboard-a message piped into your car to let you know
you're near their business. Free fries if you stop at the
next Mickey D's! We might need a new etiquette for wireless
behavior at school and the workplace. Consider the way meetings
have changed at Microsoft, where the entire campus has been
wired with Wi-Fi. On one hand, the gatherings can be much
more efficient, as questions about projects or sales figures
can be instantly answered with a quick check of information
from the network or the Internet. But the presence of a connected
computer also seduces workers to zone out of the meeting.
Microsoft, where social niceties have always taken a back
seat to relentless productivity, doing e-mail at a meeting
is acceptable behavior as long as the person isn't directly
involved in the discussion at that moment. But in some settings,
the presence of wireless networks have already triggered conflicts,
like the law professor who banned students from using laptops
for any non-class-related tasks.
Perhaps the best indicator of the true weirdness of the wired
world comes from a humble $25 toy called POX. It is a wireless
game that doesn't connect to the Internet, but sends out a
short-range signal that looks for another unit. When that
happens, a fight ensues between the software "warriors"
programmed by the kids who own the toy. Generally, kids pull
out the units to start battles, but not necessarily. So one
night when Ben Vallone, an 11-year-old in Chicago, was eating
dinner in a restaurant near his house, his POX made a weird
sound. He looked at the display and discovered that his warrior
had been clobbered by an unseen "Rocky 2." Ben's
experience is a good reminder that wireless really means superwired.
The physical cables aren't there, but we are virtually bonded
to networks, machines and other people-some of whom we know
and some we may not. Presumably, we can flick off the switch,
but as we become accustomed to steady communication with friends
and family, and constant updates of our environment, we may
not want to. Immersion in a wireless world may bring families
together and allow them to share experiences remotely, but
it could also mean that no one has anyone's full attention,
as Mom or Dad is never more than a thumb-typed e-mail away
from work, and Junior is always plotting his next move on
some online game. Choose carefully, because we will ultimately
get the wireless technology that we deserve.
Deborah Branscum and N'gai Croal in San Francisco, Jennifer
Tanaka in New York and Keith Naughton in Detroit
© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.