Never Out of Touch

Plug-in access points and powerful pocket-sized computers keep you connected

In her keynote speech at DemoMobile 2003, an annual show-and-tell for companies developing mobile and wireless technologies and gadgets, conference producer Chris Shipley joked about the end of the workweek as we know it. ”Forget 9 to 5,” Shipley said. ”Work will happen when it needs to happen, because we're 'always on' people.” I laughed as she said it, because my cellphone was flashing a text message from a co-worker and I was busy downloading e-mail to my laptop through the conference's IEEE 802.11 connection. And I was not alone.

Shipley's point is that communication is becoming a commodity as fast as the infrastructure to support ubiquitous communication and computing is put into place. The conference showed off the gadgets and services that will help people exploit that ubiquity. Here are three top picks from DemoMobile: a plug-in-the-wall router for quickly setting up a network, and a pair of pocket-sized devices, one a computer and the other a printer.

Wi-Fi in an instant

IEEE 802.11 (popularly known as Wi-Fi) is great, but the range of a typical Wi-Fi router is not. Hotels, airports, and convention centers setting up Internet hotspots must incur the expense of stringing cabling through walls. That's why Firetide (Honolulu, Hawaii) is simplifying things with instant networks that can be built using its HotPoint wireless mesh router.

HotPoint is a different kind of router. It simply plugs into an electrical outlet. Plug in as many of the small, flat boxes as you need at US $799 apiece, connect just one to the Internet, and you've got hotspots galore.

A proprietary technology and an antenna on the box allow HotPoints to automatically find, and then hand your signal packets to, each other. This handover goes on until the signal finally reaches a HotPoint connected to an Internet access point, like a cable modem or a T-1 bridge. Or connect a HotPoint to a server you want to access.

The units form a so-called self-healing mesh network that provides IEEE 802.11b or IEEE 802.11g services. Each HotPoint acts as a mesh router and access point. If a link goes down or gets congested, the mesh automatically reroutes packets.

A Web-based user interface supports network management, including a variety of security standards and third-party wireless local-area network security and management tools. []

You can take it with you...

A few years ago, researchers from IBM Corp.'s Thomas J. Watson Research Center showed off a fairly powerful computer the size of a stack of index cards. It snapped into a computer docking station or into a PDA-sized case. But because it held all your data and went from machine to machine, there was no need to sync multiple devices. Called the MetaPad by IBM, it wasn't ready for prime time, until now. Under license from IBM, Antelope Technologies Inc. (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) is making what it calls the Mobile Computer Core (MCC).

The MCC uses a Transmeta Crusoe 1-GHz processor and 256MB of DRAM. It uses an external monitor with the desktop docking station or a 1024-by-768 LCD screen built into the handheld case [photo]. The MCC snaps into its docking station or PDA case via a single connector, then identifies and adapts to what it's plugged into. It will go from dock to PDA and back again without rebooting. For now, its hard drive is a mere 10 or 15 GB, but larger sizes are in development.

Weighing just 255 grams, the 76-by-127-by-19-mm MCC can run Linux or Windows 2000/XP. The power supply, display, and even I/O preferences—a PDA touchscreen, stylus, mouse, keyboard, USB port, or Ethernet—are selectable.

Antelope sells the MCC in its $3970 MCC Evaluation Kit, which includes a handheld case, desktop docking station, mouse, keyboard, and charger. Options include a barcode scanner, head-mounted display, monitor, and detachable PDA keyboard. []

...and your little printer, too

I don't often need a printer when I travel, but the MW140BT MPrint micro printer from Brother International Corp. (Bridgewater, N.J.) could be handy to have around. And at the size of a paperback novel that's just 18 mm thick, it wouldn't weigh me down or take up a lot of space.

No, I wouldn't want to print a document or spreadsheet even at the 300-dpi resolution the micro printer offers, but travel directions or a contact's address or the day's to-do list would be fine.

Both the $299 infrared-equipped version and a $399 Bluetooth model have USB ports and Windows 2000/XP drivers. []