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The Day I Cut the Cord

October 19, 2000|STEPHEN WILLIAMS | NEWSDAY

"I've got no strings

To hold me down

To make me fret, or make me frown... "

- Pinocchio

*

To the three basic necessities of life--food, shelter and clothing--add a fourth: AA batteries.

Living a wireless life in 2000 without batteries? Impossible. Never mind your laptops, PDAs and cellular phones. There would be no Walkman, no cool chirp to help you find your car in the parking lot and, worst of all, no way to jump from ESPN to ESPN2 without getting off the couch.

Consciously or not, we all experience wireless on one level or another. And whether you believe it or not, we have for years.

The full-function television remote--which also controls the VCR, the cable box, the satellite receiver, the DVD player--is a wireless electronic stick that most of us take for granted. Ditto the cordless telephone, the remote garage door opener and the walkie-talkie monitor in the baby's room.

I have a fan that can be set from gentle breeze to Force 3 gale with a wireless remote. With a button push from my living room, I can lock the doors and set the alarm on my Volkswagen Passat.

Admittedly, though, living the wireless life has gotten a lot more complicated lately.

Asked to live without wires for a few days as part of my job as Newsday's digital "Gear" columnist, I found that it's also helpful to know the difference between: WAP (Wireless Application Protocol--a programming technology that allows graphics-rich Web sites to be viewed on small hand-held devices) and HTML (the programing language of the Internet); between Bluetooth (a technology that lets devices communicate with each other in a small geographic area) and infrared (the invisible beam that carries digital information through the air); and between a Palm VII and a Palm VIIx (8 megabytes of memory and $100).

The premise of this story was simple: Spend a few days in the electronic ether, cutting the AC cords by utilizing as many wireless devices (and batteries) as I could muster. Sounds like fun, right? Especially since I didn't have to shell out any cash for these gadgets, most of which were borrowed from manufacturers or service providers.

But I'll tell you right off that I was not unhappy to be rid of most of them at the end of this assignment.

Maybe I'm just not the perfect candidate for the wireless Web. Often in my adventures with the Sprint PCS system and with my Palm VII wireless PDA (personal digital assistant), I'd dream of a historical reversal in technology solutions. Imagine the glee if there had been a Web before there was a telephone, and then Bell had invented it:

"Yes, that's right," I'd be explaining right now, "you don't have to type with those annoying small buttons, and you can actually speak to another person and hear all the words perfectly clearly!"

Which is why I made use of the Sprint instrument's remarkably clear phone functions--including the reliable voicemail service--but rarely used it for e-mail. The Palm I reviewed was a nifty little novelty for the first day--I got caught up in reading the USA Today headlines about Slobodan Milosevic while on the Forest Hills subway platform--but its usefulness as a wireless device (its usefulness, period) diminished logarithmically.

On a WAP-enabled device such as my Sprint PCS Sanyo phone, selected (and usually condensed) data can be transmitted to the hand-held gadgets from specific servers.

Although hundreds of thousands of customers are signed up to use Sprint PCS' wireless Web service, that represents just a fraction of cell phone users. I can understand why. The "mini-browser" that Sprint uses provides only "the most critical aspects" (Sprint's words) of selected sites. The information available is heavy on headline news, sports scores, stock quotes and weather forecasts.

After a couple of days of checking barometric pressures and the price of Apple shares, it was boring.

So far, it seems to me an answer for which I have no question. It's also slow and expensive, and no substitute for a full-flung, full-color surf on the Web via a laptop or desktop PC.

Although it was a kick to constantly update scores of the American League's wild-card race while mobile, my need for amusement was more satisfied by Sony's color Watchman TV, with its fantastically sharp and clear screen.

You can't always get reception for the stations you want with the Watchman, and you can't get cable at the train station, obviously. But what you can get remains more interesting than anything that will come across a PDA.

On the road, the conventional attributes of the cell phone gave me some pleasure. This surprised me, because I wasn't before convinced of the utility, let alone necessity, of a cell phone. I'm still not--perhaps because my job keeps me on a phone for hours a day. I made phone calls sometimes just to make phone calls; I can see where this could become a habit. A bad habit.

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