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This story by Robert Saxon was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 4, 1998. All rights reserved.

Wireless Laptops: Coming Soon

If you own a laptop computer, you can take it almost anyplace and work on it, but you can't communicate with other people's computers, or the Internet, without stopping somewhere and plugging into the wired telephone network. In contrast, a cordless phone will allow you to communicate by voice with anyone in the world, with the first few feet of the journey being over-the-air, so why can't you transmit and receive data the same way?

The problem is three-fold: (1) it takes more power to transmit data than speech; (2) it requires more bandwidth because there's more information in data -- unless you are willing to put up with very slow transmission speeds; and (3) error correction is a burden; with voice, if the party at the other end doesn't understand you, he or she will say "What?" but if noise corrupts your data, you are transmitting garbage.

This is a problem that many organizations have been studying over the past 10 years. And it remains a problem, as shown by the fact that cordless voice phones are pretty much universal today, while portable laptop computers that can communicate without a hard-wired plug-in are practically non-existent.

Among the problem solvers is Sarnoff Corporation (http://www.sarnoff.com). At a conference for venture capitalists held there last week, Sarnoff technicians described Easy Talk Data Networks, a new technology venture intended to offer workable solutions. ETDN proposes to provide what is essentially an add-on for your laptop, probably an insertable card, which, along with a small antenna, will direct your data call to a nearby fixed computer. The system protocols were developed on a defense department contract for the U.S. Army to improve battlefield communication, and is currently in the Army's "alpha" (early) test stage.

But the civilian market is obviously much bigger: 43 million mobile office users (salespeople in cars, for example), and 25 million college students wandering around their campuses, to say nothing of people in big offices who are now hard-wired through a jungle of fixed cables that limit their mobility. Sarnoff claims that data transmission rates of 50 megabytes per second are possible, and that power requirements are low if the wireless signal distance is short (say within a single building).

Early systems, such as those developed in the 1980s by the late Princeton University professor Gerard K. O'Neill (U.S. 1, June 14, 1989), failed on account of insufficient carrying capacity. Power consumption remains a limiting factor, though; as yet, communication with cellular phone towers seems out of reach. Laptop batteries, even for stand-alone use, are notoriously short-lived. (Sarnoff is working on improving the rechargeable battery too, but that's another story.)

Of course, Sarnoff is not the only game in town. Nettech Systems in Research Park has developed lines of "middleware" (enabling different systems to talk to each other) adaptable to various wireless LANs; for example, the hardware in freight or express trucks that can keep the head office informed of just where every package is or when it was delivered. Just announced: Smart IP, which allows Internet applications to run on a Windows CE platform to communicate on handheld computers over wireless networks (http://www.nettechrf.com).

At present, Lucent Technologies (http://www.wavelan.com) is probably the leading provider of a broad line of wireless systems for computers. For example, it offers not only WaveLAN Point-to-Point kits which permit computers within one building to be wireless-linked to computers in another building as much as six miles away; but also a new PC card for your own portable computer that will enable it to communicate with another one over a short range, e.g. an office building or a campus. If the other computer is a central device that is hard-wired besides, you've got the whole world in your mobile laptop with no physical plug-in to anything.

The whole field is in a state of ferment. Fortunately, there is a kind of academic watchdog in this field of wireless data communication, and it's close by. It's WINLAB, the Wireless Information Network Laboratory at Rutgers University (http://www.winlab.org). It is an NSF/industry/university cooperative research center with 19 industry sponsors worldwide, plus the U.S. Army. While its principal missions are coordination of budding technologies and technical reviews, as well as educating students for this active area of technology, Winlab's David Goodman admits that the technical goals -- ultimately a moving device that will be small, lightweight and inexpensive, yet handle voice plus text, images and video, within an acceptable communication range -- are easier to state than achieve.

As in any emerging technical field, there is bound to be some shakeout. Some suppliers will prosper, and some won't. But the high level of R&D and business activity (much of it in Princeton and elsewhere in central New Jersey) means that you can get very short-distance wireless data communication right now, and that the day of the truly mobile laptop is not far off.

-- Robert Saxon


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