Wireless Computing: A new way of accessing information

What is wireless computing, otherwise known as Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity)?

Chris Anderson, in the May, 2003 edition of Wired magazine summarized it in a few short sentences: “Wi-Fi is cheap, powerful, and, most important, it works. A box the size of a paperback and costing no more than dinner for two, magically distributes broadband internet to an area the size of a football field. A card no larger than a matchbox receives it. The next laptop you buy will probably have Wi-Fi built in. Wires may soon be for power alone.”

Those of us who actually used or, in most cases, used the end results of mainframe computers thought that the invention of the desktop personal computer was the ultimate liberating event. However, the adoption of wireless computing enables us to again liberate ourselves from another clunky device: the desktop computer and the cords which emanate from it.

I first saw wireless operating almost two years ago and was struck by the potential it offered. I was at MacWorld in San Francisco and noticed about thirty people working on laptops (PowerBooks in the Mac vernacular) in a rest area near the displays. I realized that they were connecting to the web from a wireless unit which Mac calls an Airport (Apple was one of the first companies to provide wireless computing to the general public).

One of the Apple experts at the show told me that some people in Silicon Valley who had wireless cards in their computers would start their computers, put them on the passenger seats of their cars and cruise past coffee shops, watching the computers to see if they picked up wireless signals, then stopping at the appropriate coffee shop to drink lattés and check their e-mail. It's called wardriving. Warchalking refers to people putting particular chalk marks on sidewalks outside of buildings which have wireless signals that can be accessed from outside of the building.

I've since used Wi-Fi in coffee shops, hotels and at home. It's ideal for a home office where several people are using laptops or even desktop computers. One can take a laptop and a cup of coffee to any area of the house or yard and use e-mail and the web at speeds similar to those of cable and DSL. Simply buy a base station and a Wi-Fi card for your laptop. Most new laptops are now Wi-Fi ready.

Wi-Fi access is becoming more common. Check Hotspotlist to find sites near you. Many Starbucks locations in the USA have Wi-Fi access. Second Cup will soon have access at 10 sites in Canada and are promising full coverage in the near future. Some coffee shops charge for the service while others do not. Many hotels are now offering the service as well.

Physicians in hospitals are finding that Wi-Fi is invaluable to them. Students at UBC and various other Universities (most of them in the USA) are using Wi-Fi at many locations on their campuses. Some Universities have access at all locations on campus, from lawns to classrooms to residences. Travellers are using Wi-Fi access in airports, hotels and coffee shops to maintain contacts with their offices and networks.

Later this week I will be participating in the Annual General Meeting of the Book Publishers Association of Alberta at the Banff Centre. The Centre has Wi-Fi, and several of us plan to use it keep in touch with our offices and the rest of the world. If you attend you may see us sitting in the back row at the meetings, apparently taking notes on our laptops but actually checking our e-mail. Or perhaps we'll be downloading e-books from other publishers.

Nothing stays the same, certainly not technology. The early adopters and creative folks in our midst will continue to find innovative ways of using it.

Jerome Martin

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