Wireless in Manhattan

By Susannah Patton, CIO |  Networking

At the second Starbucks, with a grande house coffee and raspberry scone in hand, I check my agenda and click on Barnesandnoble.com's site on the Palm. I figure I can buy a book or CD and have it delivered to my hotel by the end of the day, thereby participating in the dawning age of mobile commerce, or m-commerce. In the middle of searching through CD titles, however, a discouraging message pops up on my screen: "Our apologies. Purchasing from the Palm is currently unavailable. Please visit our webpage to complete your order." Hmm. I could just as easily locate a Barnes & Noble store using the OmniSky service and go there. I realize that I am going to be late for my meeting, so I quickly tap on my Palm to help me find directions to MobileSpring using a service called MapBlast.

9:45

I walk out into the cold. "Head north," the instructions begin. Which way is north? I ask a man in a trench coat and hat standing next to me. "That way," he grunts, throwing his arm up for emphasis. I arrive at 120 44th Street after taking only one wrong turn.

10:10

In the cramped, dingy offices of MobileSpring, CEO Mark Caron talks about the promise and limitations of wireless communication. Caron says his developers are working on applications that people can use now, such as instant messaging between different types of devices. "There's been a 'gee whiz' factor with wireless," he says. "We need to focus on what's really useful, such as e-mail and messaging, and news and stock information." New York City is emerging as a center for wireless Internet applications, financing and advertising, Caron says, because it's ideally located for deals between the United States and Europe, where the wireless phenomenon is stronger.

Caron, who started his career in General Electric's IS department and went on to help found Omnipoint Communications, says he uses his Internet-enabled Palm VII (he's since moved to a RIM BlackBerry) to check traffic information during his commute from Ridgewood, N.J., or to check for flight delays when he's traveling. "I'm constantly comparing how long it takes wirelessly, and I get mixed results," Caron says. For the moment, he says, most people don't buy things or conduct other transactions like banking or reserving a restaurant table on the wireless Internet. Wireless modems are slow, and coverage is often spotty. In six to 12 months, however, he predicts that we'll be using mobile phones to pay parking meters or buy a Coke from a machine, like they can in Finland. Clearly, we're not quite there.

11:15

I enter the subway and try to message my editor again on my cell phone. "In subway and have a signal," I write. "Gotcha, what line are you on?" "The N train," I respond. By the time I reach the subway platform, the signal is lost.

11:30

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