Are we asking too much of mobility?

Our columnist's wireless tasks are failing him lately

I hate to admit this, but I've been having nothing but problems with my wireless strategy of late. My goal is to be 100 percent location-independent, to be able to do anything anywhere, with whatever tools are available -- ideally, just a handheld with a browser.

I want voice, of course, although I don't really care if it's VoIP or not. I want Web access that is a reasonable facsimile of what I see and do with a desktop-class browser. I also need remote access to the office network over a secured connection primarily for file access and transfer, but remote control would also be nice, if only occasionally. In short, I want to be able to do with a handheld anything I can do sitting at a computer at my desk.

Alas, I'm struggling. My e-mail strategy, to this point based on Yahoo Mail, has been repeatedly torpedoed by service outages, poor implementation and poor support at Yahoo. I like Yahoo Mail because of the unlimited storage, and the nice desktop Web client they've built, featuring drag and drop and folders. But Yahoo has had repeated operational problems, and the promising Yahoo Go client has very limited functionality and very slow performance. I'm unwilling to go to POP3/IMAP4 e-mail, and I want a single e-mail repository, not downloading and synchronization. And, regardless, neither Yahoo Mobile nor Yahoo Go work with business e-mail accounts, so, well, there I am.

And then there's wireless network performance in general. I use EV-DO on a Motorola Q on the Verizon Wireless network. I was recently sitting at lunch with a good friend who is a serious investor. I thought I would show him how I can get stock quotes, news, market reports and updates, and even graphs and charts on the Q. Alas, the performance was slow and the user interface difficult enough for him to ask why I even put up with such an approach. I got to thinking, he's right. We can do better. So why haven't we so far?

E-mail, particularly of the enterprise-class BlackBerry variety, remains the most popular application on wide-area wireless networks, and it's easy to see why: It works, and it works well. I've been testing a shiny new BlackBerry 8820 for some time, and I've got to say that this is the best BlackBerry ever. The service is snappy, thanks to careful tuning by Research in Motion, and even the BlackBerry browser, always a sore point with me, has improved to the point of usability in a variety of applications. But ask BlackBerry users if they pursue any application other than e-mail on their device, and almost all will tell you no. They're not pushing the limits of mobility with push e-mail alone, and they might be at least modestly unhappy with the results if they did.

But, regardless, the demand for better service has not yet reached the lamps-and-pitchforks stage, although I think it will, and quickly, as mobile multimedia begins to take hold. The mantra here is any content over any network on any device. This is impractical to begin with, of course, but consumer expectations have never been higher than they are today. A poor user experience, multiplied by a few thousand, could severely affect the growth of wireless and the cash flow the carriers need to continue to build out their networks. It's a vicious circle if there ever was one.

Reliability and performance should be the two primary goals of the wireless industry in 2008. I think it's important to add ease-of-use to this list as well. Not everyone has the time (or patience) to experiment and tinker, and I must admit that, while I love trying every feature of every new product I get my hands on, I have a job to do and frustration with technology is all too often an impediment to leaving the office by 6 p.m. Again, we can do better, and the very future of wireless depends on it.

Craig J. Mathias is a principal of Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.

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Craig J. Mathias

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