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Reality Check
June 2001

Robert Vahid Hashemian Pocketing Internet Telephony


I always thought that someday I would need to consult a shrink about a real split personality issue. On one hand I am a die-hard technology fan. On the other, I have acute gadget apathy. Any day I get to write a new program is a holiday to me. When I pay my bills or buy my socks online, I feel free and empowered. And I get all my news from the Web.

Yet with all these pro-technology traits, I can't figure out why I have no interest in high-tech gadgets. No cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, or laptops. When my 11-year old VCR broke a few months ago, I didn't run out to buy a DVD player. I just bought another VCR for $50. Of course I bought it the high-tech way, online.

But a couple of weeks ago Rich Tehrani, our Publisher, showed me his new iPAQ PocketPC and you know what? I actually felt drawn to it. Just a little, but enough for Rich to be surprised at my reaction to this gadget. PocketPC is Microsoft's next leap in the portable PC devices. The impetus for having a handheld PC should be obvious. For most of us who use a PC at work and at home, an ideal PDA would have an exact interface as our PCs. Be it Apple, Windows, or Linux, the PDA display should look and feel like the desktop and have the ability to achieve painless interface to the files stored on the desktop and the rest of the network, locally or remotely. iPAQ isn't perfect but it has come closer to this wish than any other device I have seen.

iPAQ is a Compaq product but PocketPC is also manufactured by other companies such as HP and Casio. The model that Rich showed me had 32 MB of RAM and a 206 MHz Intel StrongARM processor. It also came with an expansion pack armed with more battery power and a cool wireless PC card modem with a tiny antenna. Rich's iPAQ also sported a wide array of software running on top of Windows PowerPC. The whole thing looked like a Windows desktop, albeit missing the mouse and keyboard.

Now before you dismiss me and call me a sell-out to Microsoft, let me add that there are a number of initiatives (including one on iPAQ), which have ported a Linux desktop onto the PocketPC and other similar devices. That is music to my ears. Finally we may actually be able to carry our PCs in our pockets no matter what the OS.

After firing up the iPAQ and playing around with some of the applications, two features really caught my eye:

  1. The ability to play real-time music and movies. With the 14.4 Kbps connection the streaming quality wasn't exactly great, but whatever amount made it through was pretty crisp and clear.
  2. The ability to use Citrix to login to the corporate LAN. This is an incarnation of the thin client but in this case the client is not only thin but also agile.

It was immediately obvious to me that this is perhaps the platform that would finally marry Internet telephony with wireless telephony. Sure you can still have your voice service with your cell phone but can you browse the Net and check your e-mail and edit a Word file at the same time? Okay, but what about WAP?

WAP is simply no match to what a PocketPC can offer. TMCnet.com is a WAP capable site, but I would much prefer browsing our site on a normal browser than a WAP one. Not to mention that after setting up our site on WAP I wouldn't wish it on other developers. And what about PDAs such as Palm or Handspring? While these devices are widely used, there is no question that their interfaces differ widely from a normal desktop. Try browsing to a site that doesn't have Web Clipping using your Palm.

Still, many companies have sought to combine the functionality of Palm with the cell phone. The trouble with the existing cell phone/PDA hybrids is that they mainly started out as cell phones and then they tried to patch on some PDA functionality. Several wireless companies tried this approach of marrying cell phones will Palm, but as most of us have observed people aren't quite sold on the idea. So is it possible that with PocketPC the tables could be turned? Can we start out with the relatively solid PDA and then we add Internet telephony on top? With the Internet connection already there, it can feasibly be leveraged to transmit voice as well as any other type of traffic that IP can handle today. As of yet there are still several issues that need to be addressed.

Looking at the Microsoft camp and the .Net initiative, it is still unclear how Internet telephony will be worked in. Even trying to get some data on Speech.Net resulted in scant amount of information on Microsoft's Web site. The other issue is the low bandwidth afforded by wireless. A whopping 14.4 Kbps is certainly not enough to achieve an acceptable Internet telephony connection while engaged in other activities such as browsing.

Moreover wireless service is spotty around the country and its quality is still questionable. Wireless vendors such as Sprint PCS claim that the public's appetite for wireless is still ravenous even in the face of the recent economic downturn. Given this fact and the belief that technology only gets better with the passage of time, I am confident that the era of the high-bandwidth and more reliable wireless Internet is not too far away. There is also the Bluetooth technology that could someday connect us to various networks (airport, hotel, etc.) at high speed allowing us to use those networks as conduits to the Internet.

That leaves us with one last hurdle -- the PocketPC device itself. As much as I liked this device, there are still several issues that need to be worked out before it can truly achieve mainstream:

  • Price -- With the price of a loaded model approaching $1,500 and the wireless service at around $60 per month, PocketPC is an expensive toy. It has to become cheaper before it can be popular.
  • Battery life -- This is one issue road warriors always lament. Just like laptops, Pocket PC doesn't exactly have a long battery life. After waiting for years for a more durable battery technology, I am not all that optimistic about the prospects. But I haven't lost all hope either.
  • Ease of use and management -- I saw Rich struggling multiple times with the interface as he was disconnected from the provider. Of course, given the bad habit we have developed over the years with Windows, he restarted the system several times.

PocketPC is still a young technology but I see a bright future for this device. Mobile Internet telephony would be just one of the many applications that it will be able to offer in the future. Not to mention saving me a trip to the shrink's office because I have finally found a gadget I could possibly like. Do you have a PocketPC or are you pondering its influence on our lives? Drop me a line and let me know. 

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality each month in his Reality Check column. Robert currently holds the position of director for TMCnet.com -- your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center solutions. He can be reached at rhashemian@tmcnet.com.

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