A Mobile Luddite Sees The Light
By Jack Miller, Thu Dec 07 00:00:00 GMT 2000

The bandwidth is narrow, the screens are tiny, and entering text feels about as natural as using chopsticks to tie one's shoes... Nonetheless, the giddy joy of having the 'net always at one's fingertips is a call that's tough to ignore.

I admit that, purely from a geek perspective, I came to this whole "Wireless Web" thing rather late, and via a circuitous route. In fact, I'm still not quite there yet -- at least, not in terms of a web-enabled mobile phone -- but circumstances certainly seem to be pushing me in that direction. Personally, I'd been having a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about.

I saw it as devolution in action; here we had all evolved towards faster connections, bigger screens, more colors, flashier web pages, etc., and now people are falling all over themselves to take a massive step backwards, all for the sake of mobility. Remember that commercial in which the guy coaxes the geeks out of their homes and into the sun with the promise of the Wireless Web? I wasn't buying it. "You mean I can get slow access to the 'net on a device that displays four lines of text and relies on a numeric keypad for text input? Gee, where do I sign up?"

I understand that many, many people have mobile phones anyway, and see wireless 'net access as a useful bonus, but I don't quite fit into that category. Here's the thing: I barely talk on the phone anyway, whether it's mobile or not. I'm living the Insular Geek dream, and most of my non-face-to-face contact with people consists of email. Before the advent of the cable modem, the land-line phone was "that thing whose line you need for modem dial-up." (These days it's mostly "that thing that people make ring when they want to sell me things.")

So if I hardly talk on the phone at home, it's not surprising that I barely use my cellular phone either. I don't really like the things; I've been involved in enough near-accidents with dorks who were dialing while driving to form some nasty prejudices about wanton cell phone use, and the people loudly holding headset conversations while walking through the parking lot (usually about such life-and-death subjects as what to have for dinner) aren't particularly endearing, either. I wouldn't even have a cellular if I hadn't received one as a gift to be used in case of automotive emergency -- an emergency that would probably be caused by one of those aforementioned dialing-while-driving doofuses in the first place.

For that reason, I'm still hopelessly behind the curve when it comes to mobile phones in general. In an age when the kids hanging out in the food court all have mobiles roughly the size of a Tic-Tac box that seemingly play annoying chirpy renditions of any of the current top 40 jammin' hits, my own cellular is four years old, has one ring that (horror of horrors) actually sounds like a phone ringing , and features a one-line LED (yes, not LCD, but LED) display which shows nothing but the number I'm trying to call. The thing is so out of date it might as well have a rotary dial on it, but I hardly ever use it, so it's just as well.

But it's undeniably true that mobile 'net access is booming in a big way. In fact, as I write this (on a PowerBook while sitting in a coffeehouse -- see, it's not like I'm anti-mobile computing or anything), a guy at the next table has just whipped out a pager-size phone, flipped it open, and is letting his kid check his email. They're both huddled around the Magical Bringer of Bits, scrolling through messages together.

For those of you who are looking for a way to justify the expense of a mobile Internet solution, now you've got another thing to add to the "pro" column: it's going to be the great parent-child bonding conduit of the next decade. Taking Junior out for Slurpees after Little League practice? That is so last-century! Geez, if you're going to be that retro in your child-rearing practices, you might as well just get it over with -- slap a propeller beanie on his head and start calling him "The Beaver."

If/when I have kids of my own, it's clear that one day I'm going to have to bond with them over a mobile phone or face charges brought against me by the Department of Child Welfare, so, slowly but surely, I'm coming around. The technology that first got me straying from the path of Mobile Luddism was AirPort by Apple Computer. Sure, it's strictly a wireless -- not a mobile -- networking implementation, but it planted the seed for me, nonetheless.

Last year when I bought an iBook so I could work on and update my web site while traveling, I also got something that would turn the iBook into a useful tool during the fifty weeks of the year when I'm not on the road: I sprang for an AirPort card and Base Station. Suddenly I had eleven megabits per second of wireless bandwidth up to 150 feet from the source. When coupled with my cable modem, AirPort turned my iBook into what, at the time, was pretty much my holy grail: a way to surf the 'net at high speed while stretched out on the couch in front of the TV. Or while lying in bed. Or even while I'm, er, "indisposed," if you catch my drift.

Now, it's important to keep one thing in mind: since I'm a pasty-faced geek couch potato with high-speed 'net access, digital cable TV, and little inclination to leave my house, 150 feet of range is about as mobile as I needed to get. Or so I thought. Every so often the real world infringes on my insular ideal; there's that piddling little thing called a "day job," for one thing, not to mention those occasions on which my loving fiancée sees fit to drag me bodily from the house in the interest of preventing my legs from atrophying beyond recovery. And the giddy freedom of being able to access the 'net from any room in my house soon had me breaking out in cold sweats when I was sitting in a restaurant and couldn't access IMDb to look up the name of the actor who played Nick Yemana on "Barney Miller." Internet withdrawal is not a pretty sight.

And so launched my foray into the wild world of wireless. My general aversion to mobile phones remaining intact (as well as my skepticism that web access on such a device would ever be even remotely satisfying), I recently bought myself what I hoped would be a nice "middle ground" solution: a Handspring Visor Prism with an OmniSky wireless modem. So far, I have to say, I'm extremely impressed. Pen input via Graffiti, while still slower than a keyboard, is probably faster and more natural than using a phone's keypad, and color output on a 160x160 display sure can't match a 19-inch monitor, but at the same time, it sure beats four lines of text. Okay, it's dog-slow (19.2 Kbps, I believe), but I get the "available anywhere" access that has all the punters hooked and that the 'net monkey on my back has been demanding.

I have to admit, even with the slow speed, the small screen, and slow stylus-based input, the user experience has been pretty darn solid. I can send and receive email from all my POP accounts. Palm Query Apps let me access all sorts of optimized content, such as MapQuest so I can figure just what I did to get hopelessly lost, or Ameritrade so I can watch my tech stock portfolio spiral down the toilet in real-time. Now when I read my AvantGo channels, I can load the latest content without syncing, and I can even follow offsite links. Heck, I can even connect to "regular" web sites and view them in 8-bit color. And while instant messaging on a mobile seems just plain goofy (Hello? You're holding a phone. Just call the person, already!), AOL Instant Messenger on a handheld is pretty nifty.

The first day I had the OmniSky service, I was having lunch at a mall in Massachusetts while IMing with a friend at work in Louisville, KY. He told me to check out his webcam -- and I did, via AvantGo, right then and there. Now that I've seen a webcam in a mall food court while chowing down on fast-food chana masala, there's no going back.

So I'm finally starting to understand that the mobile Internet phenomenon isn't so much evolution in reverse, but rather a matter of priorities. Perhaps one day I'll get to the point where the 'net on a phone will be just what I'm looking for. In the meantime, I'm having a blast with the OmniSky hookup -- and readers of my own web site are requesting a WAP version. Hey, who am I to stand in the way of progress?

Jack Miller spends most of his waking hours in front of a TV set, but when there's nothing good on he can be found ranting endlessly about all things Mac at As the Apple Turns. He's currently drooling at the prospect of being able to inflict his opinions wirelessly while on the go. Thanks to the wonder of the mobile Internet, while waiting in line at the bagel shop yesterday he discovered that Nick Yemana was played by Jack Soo.