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Keeping Up with Nomads: An Update

Telecommuting continues to gain ground, and the market now offers more products and technology choices.

By Glenn K. Schulke

In June 1995, this column explored some of the challenges and opportunities facing the systems administrator and the high-technology nomad, including paging devices, personal digital assistants (PDAs), mobile computing, cellular modems and standards to support them. Now, some 18 months later, these techno-weapons are achieving more widespread use, communications access methods and product choices are greater and Microsoft wants everyone to use its "standards" for everything (I'll save that topic for the future).

Nomads are computing on the road and generally doing it smaller and faster than in 1995. CPUs are faster, and notebook computers are more compact and support more memory and larger disk drives. Standard analog modems have gotten faster and promise to become faster still. Satellite communications have gotten cheaper, more plentiful and smaller. Cellular networks have saturated the United States. (For a full discussion of issues in managing these types of systems, see Meeting the Demand for Mobile Computing.)

But not everything has changed. For most road warriors, data communications is still accomplished with the aid of PCMCIA modems and dial-up analog phone lines, and we have reached the point where 14.4 kilobits per second (kbps) or 28.8kbps (at best) is enough. But thanks to modem companies, faster is always on the horizon. Several vendors have already come up with 56kbps capabilities.

With clean lines and nobody else on the network, you could, I suppose, get 56kbps throughput. But if you do manage that, there is a trade-off. With 28.8kbps modems, data flows upstream as quickly as it comes down, but because we are receiving more downstream data than we send upstream, the new chip sets are designed to take advantage of this and have a preference for receiving rather than sending data. These products are just becoming available, so we'll have to wait and see how well they work.

Sold on Cellular

The availability of cellular service has helped cellular modem technology gain acceptance, and most of the key modem suppliers now offer some form of cellular modem for laptop computers. Cellular Digital Packet (CDPD) technology has gotten a foothold in the market as Epson, Rockwell, U.S. Robotics and others jump into the ring. For those who can't rely on finding a data-compatible handset or modem jack, devices using CDPD technology are now a reasonable alternative.

CDPD sends packets of data in the gaps between normal voice communication, invisibly switching packets from one channel to another to maximize channel capacity without compromising normal voice service, at speeds up to 19.2kbps. CDPD is TCP/IP-based, and additional data protection is provided by encrypted transmissions; CDPD provides connectionless service with automatic roaming and handoff.

Is the PDA Finally Here?

A market that has changed a great deal in the past 18 months is the personal digital assistant (PDA). From a system administrator's standpoint, these devices are not replacements for traditional desktop or notebook computers, but companions to them. A notebook computer is fine for many things, being an entire computer with all necessary software in one tidy package. But problems can arise if you are going to be gone for awhile or travel in different countries; you will have to lug along a spare battery pack or two, a charger, power converters, phone jack adapters and even an extra length of phone cable so you can plug into a phone jack (if there is one) and not have to sit on the floor to use your notebook.

Since Apple introduced the unsuccessful Newton in 1993, palmtop computing has matured, as many new players have entered the market. Not to be outdone, Apple has announced a new high-end product, the MessagePad 2000. It contains a fast 162MHz processor, as well as double the slots (two) and memory (5MB) of the previous MessagePad 130. With a version including an almost full-size keyboard along with the pen, it is aimed at road warriors who need to read e-mail, connect to corporate networks and work on memos and spreadsheets, but don't want to lug around a regular notebook. As with previous versions, it will communicate with wired and wireless networks.

Long known for its hand-held data-entry devices, Psion has a large share of this market. With its own palmtop operating system, Epoc, Psion offers products ranging from the low-end Siena to the new flagship product, the 3c. The 3c allows users to access corporate e-mail systems (such as Microsoft Mail and Lotus cc:Mail) and to send and receive messages and documents. Work is under way to enable users to connect to the Internet to explore the Web or exchange Internet e-mail. Standard software includes calendar, database, word processing and a spreadsheet. In addition, documents can be beamed to compatible printers or other Psion palmtops using the on-board infrared transmitter or exchanged with Windows applications.

U.S. Robotics (USR) is keen to gain a foothold in the commercial market with its Pilot offering. The Pilot is simple, small and cheap, and its memory is expandable. Two serial ports and standard applications, including a datebook, to-do list, memo pad and calculator, come with the unit. USR's HotSync software helps to synchronize PC application data with data residing on the palmtop. Unfortunately, Pilot's screen visibility is poor in low-light conditions.

IBM's ThinkPad 560 is the result of previous ThinkPad incarnations and seems to take the best from IBM's previous efforts. If you're going to be gallivanting around the world, one key advantage with IBM is the availability of worldwide service and warranty coverage.

Mobile OS Monster

In the operating system arena, Microsoft's Pegasus development team is charging ahead. The Pegasus OS is now called Windows-CE, though the team is rumored to be developing a new mini-OS known as Gryphon. That is apparently a stripped-down version of Windows-CE aimed at the low end of the PDA market. Most of the PDA players now use their own operating systems, but Microsoft is likely to try to force this "standard" on the market.

Microsoft has forged a deal with SkyTel's two-way U.S. paging service and entered into talks with wireless providers Ram Mobile Data, Ardis and the sole U.S. GSM cellular carrier. It is said that the initial Gryphon release will offer wireless, fax and Internet support. Expect a ROM-based version of Word, Excel and Explorer Lite as well. To further complicate the market, Microsoft has dropped the PDA moniker, now referring to the Windows-CE family of products as hand-held computing devices or hand-held PCs (HPCs).

Among other vendors, Compaq is expected to OEM a version of Casio's Windows-CE hardware offering. Toshiba and others are expected to OEM versions of USR's Pilot PDA and wait for the dust to settle.

As a final note, the IEEE-1394 FireWire standard will greatly enhance communications among traditionally dissimilar equipment, allowing, for example, digital video cameras to transfer perfect images to PCs without the troublesome and computer-intensive step of converting an analog signal to a digital signal. This standard and the PDA-HPC operating system war should be things to keep an eye on in 1997.

Glenn K. Schulke is president of Open Technologies, Inc., a systems integrator specializing in software integration services, located in Tempe, AZ. He can be reached at