Promise of a wireless world remains elusive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 December, 2003, 12:00am

If you are anything like me, from the corner of each eye you can see wires: white wires, black wires, charger wires and phone wires festooning your office and lending it the aura of a snake pit.

However sharp, clean and paperless I try to keep the place, those bendy lines still ruin the ambience.

How seductive then that upgrade to the paperless office the wireless network sounds, promising to foster sleek, modern living characterised by oodles of space and light.

Alright, maybe I have been reading too many estate-agent particulars. That said, the wireless network really does seem to be gaining a stranglehold around the new economy's skinny geek neck.

You now have a spectrum of thin-air networking technologies to choose from, among them infrared and Bluetooth.

But the one generating fractionally more hype and hullabaloo and which has been dubbed 'the hottest new networking technology on the planet' by Time magazine is the swishly named Wi-Fi.

This term, which to the uninitiated may suggest marital faithfulness, actually means any product or service using a type of technology blessed with a name redolent of engineers who cannot form a sentence and have never seen a woman: IEEE 802.11.

This mouthful of alphabet soup in turn means a wireless version of Ethernet, the conventional copper-cable method of rigging up devices.

Doing away with the dangle, Wi-Fi is fast (11 megabits per second and over) and reliable, and its range is about the same distance as a spousal injunction in the United States - about 91 metres.

Better yet, you can access Wi-Fi when on the hoof at a hotspot: a zone within which your laptop will be in range of a wireless access point that will connect you to the Net without a cable.

So far so slick. All over the globe, Wi-Fi hotspots are emerging in public places such as airport lounges and train stations. On paper, this development looks like the arrival of the long-prophesied, much mocked 'anytime, anywhere' vision of a ubiquitous internet, dismissed by cynics as 'never, nowhere'.

The new breed of Wi-Fi evangelists preaches that, before you know it, televisions, computers, stereos and other domestic electronic devices will be Wi-Fi-enabled wherever they are found, from schools to startups.

Soon, no doubt, even mosques will be in on the act and every new baby will have a Wi-Fi badge stamped on its forehead and start surfing the Net wirelessly before it learns to say 'dada'.

The rub? Well, it 's the problem which bedevils most hot technology - aside from two or three hi-tech seers, nobody actually uses it.

Although we vaguely know Wi-Fi hotspots exists, only 6 per cent of us have used the service in a public place, according to a report released in November by Jupiter Research.

The average mildly techie consumer apparently prefers just to use a hotel connection or dive into an internet cafe when roaming.

Maybe the problem is that he or she has simply not clocked where the hotspots are. Search no further than the JIWIRE directory ( browse-hotspot-cafe-hong-kong-hk.htm).

The directory lists more than 100 hotspots in the Fragrant Harbour, starting with 2 Sardines in SoHo.

The site even offers driving directions. PCCW's Netvigator wireless site ( lists 197.

Doubtless, the idea will catch on eventually.

Remember how much scepticism the idea of a wireless phone network once attracted?

In the 1980s yuppies equipped with brick-sized handsets elicited more ridicule than respect and now who's laughing?

Watch this space.

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