Wishful Thinking: An ultimate communication device for PDAs?

After playing around with my brand new infrared v90 modem for my PDAs (expect a review soon), it got me thinking…For almost the same size of that modem, someone could place in there electronics also for ethernet, Wi-Fi (802.11b) and Bluetooth 1.2 Class I (100 meters/330 ft) in addition to existing serial/IR modem support. Remove two batteries from the case’s design and the size of the device should remain the same. Two batteries for such a device should last at least 10-15 hours, the current 4 batteries of the Pegasus III can do 30 hours and they recharge automatically when using the DC.

mockup of the conf utility on PalmOS Basically, such an imaginary device would work as a networking bridge for a PDA or laptop, a PDA that would have no other means to communicate other than infrared. Most Sony Clie are like that and most Palm PDAs too. Only recent PocketPCs include either WiFi or Bluetooth in them. But no matter how you see it, 70% of the active PDAs in the world today have no means to directly communicate with the internet/network, and the ones that do have the means, not always are in a situation where they can use their WiFi or BT internal modules because the user might be on a place outside of his wireless network (e.g. on vacation, in a hotel while on a business trip, or visiting another company and needs to use the net quickly). With this imaginary device I am describing here, even an old PalmV, or an 4 year-old iPaq, or an older Zaurus device, or a Windows laptop, would be able to connect to the network without much hassle via the method available each time.

Personally, I have four PDAs at my home: one of them is able to do WiFi (Sony Clie TH-55), one of them is able to do both WiFi and BT (Dell x50v) and the other two (PalmV, Sony Clie T615C) can’t connect to the net directly at all (only via offline syncing methods like AvantGo). And to make things even worse, there is no Bluetooth or WiFi or modem or ethernet SD or memory sticks sold anymore (besides, they become expensive when they are implemented on these CF/SD/MMS protocols), and so these PDAs can’t be expanded to add network connectivity to them (there are a few expensive compact flash ethernet/modem addons but for PocketPCs only). You may argue that most of the internet sucks via a small-screen browser, but hey, OSNews.com does not. And I find IM and email usage also usable via a PDA, and so I argue that extending these PDAs that happen to lack onboard or third party connectivity support is a good thing.

A great connectivity example is my 12″ Apple Powerbook which comes with BT, Wifi, Ethernet and 56k modem. It’s a true mobile device and it features all means necessary to login to any given network while away from home/work, depending on what method is available each time. So why a PDA should not be able to do the same? I believe that the strengths of PDAs are underestimated. My latest PDA, the Dell x50v, has a 624 Mhz CPU, 128 MB ROM, 64 MB RAM, VGA 640×480 hi-res screen (via a hack), WiFi, Bluetooth, 1.2 GB storage via SD/CF and yes, a 16 MB 3D accelerated card (!). My PDA’s CPU speed is *faster* than my main desktop machine’s which runs Windows XP (533 Mhz). How about that for a PDA, huh?

I believe that it’s not difficult to bridge IR with modem/eth/wifi/BT, it just requires a bit of a clever thinking and some well-architected drivers… And if such a device was able to sell for something like $99, I believe that it would be a great hit, because it would feature all five ways of communicating with a network, all in a small device!

Infrared multi-comm-device

Many will say that Infrared communications are slow (115.2Kbps for most devices, 4Mbps for some PocketPCs) and that it would be reduntant to communicate a PDA to this IR device when the IR device itself is connected on its backend to a fast network via BT or Wifi or Ethernet. These people would be misguided though, because the point of such a device is NOT to get speedy connections to move files or multimedia around, but the ability to connect *any* PDA/laptop/tabletPC to the network for some basic usage. Infrared’s 115.2Kbps is not that bad of a speed either to download your email or browse the web. Nobody is going to download and store mp3s or movies via his/her PDA anyway, and so, fast bandwidth is not really required for the true purposes of such a device. Sure, infrared means that my PDA needs to have a line of sight with the device at all times, but at least it gives me a feeling of [semi-]wireless experience. Besides, if the device was not infrared and was instead depending on proprietary cables, it would significantly limit the number of supported PDAs, because each PDA has its own, different kind, connector. And that would be a disaster for support, sales and compatibility for the company that would create this product. Personally, I would not mind sacrificing speed for the ability to connect anywhere and via any method.

Regarding support, it would be nice to see drivers for all major versions of WindowsCE/PPC, PalmOS v3.5 and up, Zaurus, Windows 9x/2k/XP, Linux and hey, why not? the Apple Newton & Danger’s Hiptop/Sidekick. That would be fun!

Regarding Bluetooth: not many use their BT-equiped phones as modems, neither many people have Bluetooth access points, but it’s still useful to be there. Remember, the functionality of Bluetooth in such a device would just be as a “net client”, it would not be a bluetooth modem neither it would sport a full Bluetooth implementation. So, adding Bluetooth to this communication device wouldn’t be too difficult from the engineering point of view.

Anyways, having the device doing at least 56k modem, ethernet and WiFi and be able to connect any PDA/TabletPC/Laptop to any given network, is priceless. I wish someone could create such a multi-device with a small form factor, using two AAA batteries and optional DC, serial support and the Infrared FIR protocol for up to 5 meters, for $99. It would rock the mobile world and it would fuel a new era of web design professionals optimizing for small screen devices! Just create the need for it!

Your faithful gadget geek,


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