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The Wireless Web

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Unquestionably, mobile and wireless computing will dominate the Internet industry in the future. New and exciting e-services are already being deployed while at the same time the Internet becomes more and more pervasive in our everyday lives. New economy entrepreneurs have leveraged huge sums of money to develop sophisticated applications that will forever change the ways in which people access information, communicate, and interact over the emerging global information infrastructure. As this wireless networking infrastructure develops, information services will become commonplace, just as electricity services are today. Users will be able to plug information appliances into the network and access its rich information base. The term "ubiquitous computing" is often used to describe the vision of anytime, anywhere access to the Internet—mobile and wireless network technologies will play an important role in realizing this grand vision of the future.

Already today, nations around the world are rapidly embracing mobile and wireless technologies. In Europe, millions of people are walking around with WAP-enabled (wireless application protocol) phones. These phones are able to communicate with vending machines and other devices to carry out mobile commerce transactions on behalf of users. In Japan, there are millions of iMode subscribers using NTT DoCoMo’s low data rate wireless Internet service, and this is only a short time after the initial service offering. In the U.S., mobile Internet services are less developed but the situation is changing rapidly as users demand additional flexibility in how, when, and where they access the Net and its multitude of services.

In the future, the wireless Web will enable many new mobile application areas. Entertainment, education, and business applications are just a few of the areas that will see the greatest change. Here, I will describe one emerging application area and how it will greatly benefit from the wireless Internet: wireless Web-based instruction or w-WBI.

One of the most appealing aspects of w-WBI is the capability for providing just-in-time support for user collaboration and decision-making. The advent of mobile wireless data devices takes the attractiveness of this capability to a new level, allowing a student user to be literally anywhere and request information and support from Web site resources. As Arlene O’Leary has noted in the Educational Technology Review,1 commenting on college undergraduates: "They no longer want a ‘just-in-time’ education. They seek a ‘just-for-you’ customized education." Imagine a future in which w-WBI provides very specific content that is personalized for its users. Interfaces and content will be tailored to the user’s needs and history, and material of little interest will be filtered out.2

As this wireless networking infrastructure develops, information services will become commonplace, just as electricity services are today.

The w-WBI participants will take advantage of relevant content and collaboration available on a site without being overwhelmed by either a media-heavy environment or a lack of organization within and between pages. Primary and media-rich content will be stored on the local handheld device (for example, on a DVD disc) and a wireless connection will provide interactivity and real-time updates to the content. Intelligent agents will "push" notification of new content to participants based upon their geographic location, prompting a visit to the site at a convenient opportunity.

Ubiquitous access will enable w-WBI applications to infuse more interactivity into the design of Web content. Web site design for instruction will consist of a large number of small informational units, each designed to optimize the bandwidth and display restrictions of mobile devices. Additional interactivity will come from the use of advanced Web forms that allow user input beyond text typed from a keyboard. Users will no longer be restricted to making text-, pen-, and symbol-input; voice- and video-input will be the norm.

Given current trends, how might this future develop? Emerging third-generation wireless standards and wireless personal digital assistants are just the first step toward realizing this future. Several important problems must still be solved before we are able to realize the full promise of the wireless Web. Effective and efficient management of power continues to be a formidable challenge for mobile devices. Power engineering requirements will continue to plague manufacturers unless there is some breakthrough in battery technology. Today’s portable displays are far from ideal—they have a high cost, consume large amounts of energy, have poor outdoor resolutions, and weigh too much. On the networking side, data rates must improve, quality of service must be supported, and interoperability issues must be resolved between the various wireless networking standards.

Trends in liquid-crystal displays technologies, electric or digital paper, and fourth-generation wireless networking look very promising. Over the next few years, the Internet infrastructure will mature to a point where mobile wireless services will become the norm rather than exception. The ubiquitous information appliance is clearly within our reach.

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones that ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.
—John Maynard Keynes, economist

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    1O'Leary, A. Educational Technology Review. (Spring/Summer 2000), 28.

    2The need for this kind of filtering is made more evident when one considers the screen space and memory capacity most wireless users are afforded.

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