- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Computer technician Matthew Silverman hardly notices the flip phone he carries in his pocket or the weight of the four-pound Dell laptop he carries around the George Mason University campus.

But he leaves his 5-ounce personal digital assistant in “a desk drawer somewhere,” he says.

Mr. Silverman is savvy about the latest hand-held devices as senior manager of electronics classroom support, which provides technical and instructional support for the campus’s audio, visual and computer systems.

However, the Alexandria resident says he does not want to carry too many things and finds that his PDA is too limited a device for mobile computing.

“A lot of people are looking for one device to do everything,” Mr. Silverman says.

Hand-held devices, which already combine such functions as voice, data, messaging and Web browsing, are expected to do even more in the next five years, as forecast by those working in and studying the PDA industry.

“Devices got simpler to use doing more complex things,” says Derek Lloyd, communications professor and senior network engineer for Howard University in Northwest. “You no longer have to be a computer nerd to be able to do these things.”

In September, Research in Motion Ltd. introduced the BlackBerry 7100 Series hand-held device in cooperation with T-Mobile USA Inc. The device combines e-mail, instant messaging, organization tools and Web access on a smaller mobile-phone unit, known as a candy-bar phone.

The QWERTY keypad found on earlier BlackBerry devices is condensed to 20 keys with one to two letters per key. Intuitive software figures out the text being inputted by relying on a 35,000-word library organized in a series of algorithms.

The earlier BlackBerry devices did not provide “as good a phone experience,” says Bryan Zidar, spokesman for T-Mobile, based in Bellevue, Wash.

“They were pretty much data-focused,” he says. “This BlackBerry feels and looks like a cellular phone.”

In late October, palmOne, Inc. introduced the Treo65O, a compact mobile phone with PDA functions, a digital camera able to capture video and a MP3 player. MP3 is short for MPEG-1, layer 3 and shorthand for any type of digital music file, according to the MP3 Web site.

“It’s going to be more the center of your personal computing experience rather than the laptop and desktop,” says Greg Shirai, director of product marketing for palmOne Inc., in Milpitas, Calif. “You are going to be able to access everything and do everything while you’re on the go.”

David Werezak, vice-president of Research in Motion, in Waterloo, Ontario, agrees.

“We’re very much focused on helping people achieve more productivity … with their work-life balance. We’re helping people get work done during downtime,” he says.

Devices such as the BlackBerry 7100 and Treo650 are examples of a move toward device consolidation and the convergence of various technologies into more compact units.

Convergence is “the ability to have all of your data interact with other data,” Mr. Silverman says. “It starts synchronizing your data sources, so you don’t have to start carrying around many sources of information.”

One such convergence could combine a pocket-size phone with a personal computer that would connect wirelessly or through a Bluetooth microchip connection, says Ben Bederson, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, looking ahead 10 to 15 years.

“More and more, there will be all different kinds of devices that will come together. The holy grail is a single device that will do everything,” says Mr. Bederson, who holds a doctorate in computer science.

As the devices come together, they will be able to be used in more places. For example, cellular and Wi-Fi, or “wireless fidelity,” networks could be integrated to provide seamless telecommunication services, so mobile-phone users could switch from a cellular network to a Wi-Fi network in “hot spots” with wireless access as they travel to different locations, Mr. Silverman says.

“The technology needs to get to a point to where it adds value to your everyday way of doing business. To make that happen, we need to roll out high-speed networks so you have the concept available wherever you need it,” he says.

A mobile phone, for example, could act like a cordless phone when tied to the home wireless network and a cellular phone outside the home through a cellular wireless network, says Mark Uncapher, senior vice president and counsel for the Information Technology Association of America.

The Arlington-based trade organization represents information-technology companies.

“In effect, you get the better signal quality. You get the cost savings,” Mr. Uncapher says.

The 3G, or third-generation, network is the next step for high-speed mobile and data networks, a step up from the analog, digital and digital-with-data-capabilities networks used for various telecommunication services, Mr. Silverman says.

The 3G network, which is an emerging technology, will provide Internet access through broadband at speeds of 300 to 500 kilobits per second to allow for downloading large files, including text, image, audio and video, and browsing the Internet as if using a laptop computer, he says.

Currently, most wireless carriers have data services that allow for speeds of 60 to 80 kilobits per second, not fast enough for anything more than basic e-mail and Web browsing, says John Johnson, spokesman for Verizon Wireless, based in Laurel.

“A real graphic Web site needs a high-speed connection to deliver a good user experience,” Mr. Johnson says. “Those are things broadband makes possible on a home computer. Now imagine many of those same kind of things being possible over a truly mobile wireless connection to a handset.”

PDAs are soon expected to come on the market with Wi-Fi service imbedded in them, Mr. Silverman says.

“Every PDA with Wi-Fi access has the potential to become a telephone,” he says, adding that installing the right software, a microphone and ear piece would create the portable phone. “The vast majority of PDAs don’t have phone service embedded in them.”

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