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Wireless: Will it or won't it?

CNET's Michael Kanellos wonders whether wireless computing will change the relationship people have with their computers--or wind up a hobby for techno nuts.

Will wireless computing fundamentally change the relationship people have with their computers, and allow them to hurdle over one more barrier presented by the physical world--or will it mostly be a hobby for techno nuts?

The future of the PC market hangs on that question.

Intel last week formally unleashed its onslaught on the wireless market with Pentium M an energy-efficient processor for Wi-Fi (802.11 wireless) notebooks. Intel will also sell it in a three-chip bundle of parts called Centrino.

These Pentium-M notebooks will run for around five hours to six hours on a single battery charge, and up to 11 hours with an auxiliary battery--the sort of performance needed to make wireless access a habit.

Intel is also priming

Advocates say Wi-Fi will be a hit because it lets people be in two places at once. Sales representatives stuck on a plane or at the airport can continue to work rather than thumb through three-week-old copies of Car and Driver.

"From a corporate perspective, wireless improves productivity. You don't have to be pulled out of meetings to answer a quick question," said Robert Enochs, product manger for the T-Series line of ThinkPads at IBM.

The manual labor and regulatory hassles involved in laying down communication pipes also vanish, making it easier for computing access to proliferate.

"Wi-Fi is especially significant to us...because it removes the obstacles in-between," noted Andy Grove, Intel's chairman. "The wires in-between do not follow Moore's Law. In fact, they do not follow any law but those promulgated by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission)."

Ultimately, time, space and distance could be compressed, prompting the sort of societal changes brought forth by the car, television and the Internet. You'll be able to stay in touch with everyone at all times. Then again, you won't be paying attention to them nearly as well as you once did, because you'll be reading your e-mail instead. Travel will become easier, but also less exotic.

The delivery of full-length movies and music through broadband pipes to the home will become a reality. You might not need to put clothes on for days.

Skeptics, however, caution that wireless boosters may be sniffing the fumes of unrealizable expectations.
Skeptics, however, caution that wireless boosters may be sniffing the fumes of unrealizable expectations. It's a common industry problem. Analyst reports often suggest an unlimited potential for some technologies--but then you realize that, to achieve the numbers, every third person in Belgium would have to buy a rack-mounted server cluster and trade their excess beets online.

Skeptics note that cell phones, from a behavioral standpoint, are different than Wi-Fi notebooks. Cell phones need to be left on because people call up with urgent messages. E-mail and instant messaging aren't what you use when you want to talk to someone straight away: Part of the appeal is that you can respond at your leisure.

As a result, Wi-Fi hot-spot use may not, in the long run, get a constant grind of traffic. "How many hot spots do you think you will use?" said Gartner analyst Mark Margevicius. "Are you going to sit there at your kid's softball game answering e-mail?"

Cell phones and personal e-mail devices, such as the Hiptop, from Danger, will provide people with remote Internet and e-mail access. If phones become a commonly used medium for data traffic, many people may not bother to spend the extra dollars to get a wireless account for the notebook.

Finally, most of us don't really need to stay in the loop at all times. The world will go on, even if you don't read the "SF Only: Toy Story 2 on Ice Tickets Still Available" e-mail the moment it comes out.

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In this light, the universe of heavy Wi-Fi users begins to look smaller. In fact, it begins to sound like the sort of thing mostly of interest to those guys who come to Comdex armed with two cell phones, a pager and a global positioning system (that informs them that they are in a convention center). All this gear looks nice when festooned round the body in an Emiliano Zapata-like bandolier, but is it really useful?

Then again, it's hard to underestimate the desire for mobility. Cell phone sales have far exceeded any earlier expectations. Users, not corporate marketing departments, are pushing Wi-Fi--a sign of potentially strong growth.

Some carriers, particularly in China, are looking at ways to sell Wi-Fi phones once the network gets built out. Wi-Fi adoption in notebooks, therefore, could pave the way to free phone calls.

There's something in the water. The question now is: How big will it be?