The Future of Wireless

Discover Roundtable

By Kathy A Svitil and Joshua Kessler
Oct 1, 2001 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:33 AM


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DEAN DOUGLAS held several executive positions at Motorola and is now general manager of wireless e-business for IBM Global Services. He is an expert on the uses and transfer of wireless information, especially extremely high speed data transmission.

JOY MOUNTFORD has worked at people-machine interface design for more than 20 years. She created the human interface group at Apple Computer and now heads her own company, idbias, which designs and develops prototypes for user-centered hardware and software.

BOB LUCKY is corporate vice president of applied research at Telcordia Technologies. Early in his career at Bell Labs, he invented the adaptive equalizer, one of the key components of high-speed computer modems. He is the author of three books, including Lucky Strikes . . . Again.

ERIC HASELTINE, the moderator of the discussion, is head of research and development for the Walt Disney Company. He is a neuroscientist and the author of Discover magazine's monthly NeuroQuest column, an interactive exploration of how the human brain works.


is director of the networking techniques research department at Bell Labs, which is part of Lucent Technologies. He is also director of the advanced mobile networking department in the wireless distance unit of Lucent.

MARVIN MINSKY is the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has often been called the founding father of artificial intelligence research and is the author of several books, including The Society of Mind.

JEFF HARROW, previously the principal member of the technical staff for Compaq Computers' corporate strategy group, is an independent consultant. He invented the first iconic network management prototype for DEC-Net networks and is editor of a technology journal at

PEKKA VARTIAINEN is a senior vice president of Nokia Mobile Phones— United States. He joined Nokia in 1985 and has held a number of major management positions within the company, including head of global marketing for cellular systems.

A quarter century ago, AT&T and Bell Labs created the first cellular phone network for some 2,000 test subjects in Chicago. Now everybody and their mother has an Internet-enabled cell phone, and a host of new wireless devices come on the market every year. The number of wireless subscribers worldwide reached 477 million at the end of 1999 and is expected to jump to 1.1 billion by the end of 2004. How will this explosion of wireless technology change our lives? Discover magazine convened a panel of technological visionaries to find out.

HASELTINE: Looking ahead five years, what will we find in the wireless world that most surprises us?

Dean DouglasGrooming by Amy Marie for Price Inc.; Prop Styling by Jen Everett.

DOUGLAS: We're going to have new types of networks built with wireless local area networks in a wide range of public places. You'll be able to walk into a coffee shop, such as a Starbucks or a Dunkin' Donuts, or even park outside a convenience store, open up your laptop or handheld device, and communicate at the same speeds that you communicate today using a wired Ethernet connection. Now, that's pretty fast— 10 megabits per second. That kind of speed is well beyond what is contemplated in cellular networks.

MOUNTFORD: When we talk about wireless devices, I get a little nervous. I am a big fan of wires. They allow me to trace what is connected to what. I have this vision of rushing out of my house to go to work, equipped with my various cell phone and portable devices. I meet my refrigerator salesman as I get into my car, and I say, "I don't remember calling you." And he says, "Well, yes, but your fridge is Internet-enabled, and it told me that you need to have something changed because it's time to service it."

LUCKY: I don't think that's going to happen. If a repairman shows up and says my washing machine has called in, I'm going to tell him, "It still works. I don't believe you guys!" He'll go back and say, "Hey, we spent a lot of money going out there, and he didn't want it fixed." On the other side, I do believe that in five years there will be ubiquitous wireless local area networks in the business-travel environment— in hotels and in airports. And I can imagine some other flaky surprises. I know of one person working with real estate people to build a device into a cell phone that would allow you to go down the street, point to a house, and have your phone tell you what it sold for. Now, I think this could be addictive; I could do this all day long.

HASELTINE: Whether or not you were in the market for a house.

LUCKY: Exactly. Check out what your neighbors paid. And here's a really scary thought: I saw this demonstration of a Motorola car radio that could get Internet stations and was combined with a cell phone and GPS [global positioning system]. Someone at that demo said, "Wait a minute now. You've got all this capability. I want to call the idiot in the car in front of me." And the engineer said, "Yeah, we can do that." I mean, can you imagine the chaos on the L.A. freeways as the phone rings and it's the guy behind you?

Jeff HarrowGrooming by Amy Marie for Price Inc.; Prop Styling by Jen Everett.

HARROW: We're going to make wireless disappear. Not that we're going to stop using it. Just the opposite. Wireless will become so ubiquitous that we're no longer going to pay it any attention. For example, we won't notice the difference between home phones and cell phones.

MINSKY: One thing that obsesses me a little bit is how things will be different for kids who grow up using cell phones. I've already seen this with e-mail. Typically, when you grow up, you don't pal around with kids you knew in second grade. But my kids do, because they've had e-mail since second grade. The point may ultimately come when we have a big subclass in society of people who never need to make new friends.

VARTIAINEN: In Finland, 98 percent of the youngsters between 12 and 18 years old have cell phones, and it's creating a new social model. But it is really connecting people, not separating them. When you study how these people are using the phone, it's 90 percent text-messaging and only 10 percent voice calls. The way people in this age group ask for a date is by a text message. At that age, if you're too shy to talk to a beautiful girl, you send her a text message.

HASELTINE: I've read that sociologists found that the most common word uttered over a wireless phone is "Hello. Hello? Hello?" In all seriousness, we've all had the experience of having to hit redial several times to reconnect. So when will wireless work as well as wired?

VARTIAINEN: When you are digital and go to packet-based networks, as the Internet is now, then you actually have much more possibility to deliver services flawlessly, but never, ever at the same speed as you are going to have in the fixed network. For the time being, videoconferencing will be very impractical and expensive to do over wireless. Then again, digital color imaging will be here next year. We think people will be inclined to send digital images together with text messages if they have a nice color display.

Eric HaseltineGrooming by Amy Marie for Price Inc.; Prop Styling by Jen Everett.

HARROW: A network of wireless local area networks is an example of how wireless can work as well as, or even slightly better than, the wired alternatives. 802.11B— a wonderfully named technology, right?— is a wireless Ethernet that runs a bit faster than wired Ethernet. I have an 802.11B Ethernet in my home office, which means I don't have to run a wire to network my computers. Yet they run as fast as if I plugged them into a wired Ethernet. This technology was very expensive a few years ago. Now it's affordable. And I can't imagine setting up a house without it.

HASELTINE: Are we going to have wireless toasters as well?

HARROW: There are already wireless toasters that will even burn an image of today's weather forecast onto your toast. It's true. Wireless appliances are going to evolve. One example is a washing machine that will download new fabric-care cycles for newly developed fabrics. Now, suppose that every piece of clothing had a wireless ID tag in it containing care instructions. A smart washing machine could then warn you if you dropped a colored item in with the whites.

HASELTINE: Will wireless networks be merged with so-called 3G— third generation— networks that would involve broadband, wide-area technology?

LUCKY: 3G is a top-down technology. The governments get together, agree on a big standard, auction off the licenses, and so forth. The licenses that they paid for in Europe to use that spectrum for 3G are just going to bankrupt those companies! In the U.K., the money that was paid for the licenses just to use that spectrum would have been sufficient to put fiber optics into every home in the country. 802.11B is bottom-up. It's the people's revolution. In fact, in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, people have already set up volunteer relay points that allow you to connect to your Internet service provider and never go through a telephone company. The Portland- based Personal Telco Project ( index.cgi/Wireless Communities) gives links to Web sites that list various locations worldwide where free wireless connectivity is possible.

DOUGLAS: One thing we've skirted around is voice on these wireless local area networks. Voice is going to be just an application on the data network.

LUCKY: A little qualification. I think this is a difficult technical problem. Voice requires a pretty good quality of service, so there's not latency or jitter on the packets as they go through. On your home local area network, voice will be fine. But maintaining good, normal voice conversations in the outer world on 802.11B is not going to be easy.

Joy MountfordGrooming by Amy Marie for Price Inc.; Prop Styling by Jen Everett.

HASELTINE: With all of this information and voice zipping through the airwaves, are there concerns about privacy?

LUCKY: One privacy thing that we're going to confront pretty soon is this location awareness stuff. When information is floating on the network of exactly where you are, and the advertisers and insurance companies want to use that information, then the question is: Who owns that information and what are they allowed to do with it? The law on these things is not very clear.

DOUGLAS: I think that we're losing a lot of the privacy battle as it stands today with the Internet, which is creating a very intrusive way of determining a lot of things about us. Once you buy something, you're pegged. Location-based capabilities of wireless will undermine privacy rights even more. For example, the ability to track how fast you're going on a highway may be an interesting application for the state highway patrol. I drive pretty aggressively. I would hate for the highway patrolman to know where I am and how fast I'm going.

HARROW: The thing to remember is that it is certainly feasible for most any wireless communication to be intercepted and even for information on someone's Web server to be compromised. We do have the technology to provide pretty good encryption— not perfect, but good enough for most purposes. We just haven't yet had the desire as a society to make sure that all cell phone communications, or all the data stored on public Web servers, are encrypted. But I suspect that public pressure may eventually cause that to happen.

MOUNTFORD: There's no question my life is less private now. Solitude and privacy are becoming rare commodities.

Thomas LaPortaGrooming by Amy Marie for Price Inc.; Prop Styling by Jen Everett.

HASELTINE: Most wireless technology we use these days is RF, or radio frequency. Do you see that changing anytime in the near future?

MINSKY: I know of one really funny adaptation of RF. I have a friend who has some GPS devices on various mountains in Alaska, and it's hard to get signals to Fairbanks from there. But you know, every minute or two, a little meteor goes through the atmosphere and leaves a trail of ions. This is an old technique radio amateurs have used: Bounce a signal off this trail in the sky.

LUCKY: There are a handful of little companies that want to bring data links into buildings using lasers. They say, "Hey, this afternoon we'll put a free-space laser on your roof, aim it at another building, and you'll have gigabit connectivity this afternoon." Until fog rolls in.

DOUGLAS: IBM is working with intelligent vending using infrared devices. You might be able to use an infrared port on your cell phone to buy a Coke from a machine by just pushing one button.

VARTIAINEN: Nokia is running trials with Taco Bell and McDonald's with RF-ID payment. You can change covers on almost every Nokia phone. By clicking on a smart cover with RF-ID capability, your credit information would be transmitted to the store cashier when you walk through the door. It's more secure than using a credit card, and you get faster service than you get by using cash.

HASELTINE: There are roughly four different kinds of personal devices that people carry around with them. There are communicators, phones, and pagers. There are imager cameras, video cameras, and so forth. There are various player devices, such as the media players. And there are personal digital assistants. Are all of these devices and functions going to converge into a single Swiss-Army-knife-type personal device that does everything?

MOUNTFORD: I hope we don't repeat the mistakes we've seen in the software world. I don't think you can have a tool— or a program— that does everything. In the same way, you shouldn't have a portable device that does everything. The question is: What's the price you will pay for the smallest accessory, and will you plug all the accessories together into your own little suite of tools using one base? Everything I see does too much. We get overwhelmed and frustrated with the accessories and abandon them. The tools that we build in hardware should have a small number of refined functions, and these tools should migrate across different devices.

LUCKY: I have a general rule in life that anything that does two different functions does neither of them very well. However, there is one big exception to this: the PC. The great thing about the PC is it will do new things it wasn't designed to do. Microsoft now wants to put a telephone in every computer.

Bob LuckyGrooming by Amy Marie for Price Inc.; Prop Styling by Jen Everett.

HARROW: It's clear that some things don't combine well. But Bluetooth technology, if it lives up to its hype, could allow each of us to design the functional solutions that we want on a very ad hoc basis. Bluetooth uses short-range radio— about 30 feet— that in theory would allow cell phones and cameras and just about any kind of electronic device to interoperate and communicate at will. What that means is that simply by purchasing individual devices that do the specific things you want, they could combine into the perfect tool. For example, you might use a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone to wirelessly act as the gateway to the Internet for your notebook. You might be able to download a picture from a camera directly into your notebook and then send it off to your mom or to your editor if you're a journalist. It's the ad hoc, undefined nature of what a Bluetooth-enabled world could represent that could be so fascinating.

DOUGLAS: With Bluetooth you can start taking advantage of computers that are really wearable and have only the capabilities that you need. I think this is the way the flexibility of the computer is going to be employed over time.

HASELTINE: We have a widening gulf between technology and the user. Is there any hope that we can bridge this gap?

MOUNTFORD: We talk a lot about how to enrich the display devices with color, sound, video, whatever. But we spend very little time talking about ways we users communicate with the devices. When we speak, we typically look in a certain place, and we also gesture. We really don't communicate effectively with a one-button or two-button mouse pointing at a piece of glass that's a screen. I think the human devices for communicating with computers, whether they be wireless or not, are extremely limited. They need to be enriched to reflect more about each individual, mirroring the person's presence, gestures, and tone.

LAPORTA: You can make devices complicated, and you can make networks complicated, but the one thing that really can't get complicated is the way people interact with the service. If you can do multiple things easily with one device, people will use it. They don't care that they're using an infrared or RF or digital or whatever. All they care is that they can do something and do it easily.

HASELTINE: As wireless becomes more ubiquitous, what kinds of changes do you think it will make in people's lives?

HARROW: People are going to begin to expect to have access to a world's worth of information whenever and wherever they need it. It's not going to be something that you have to cobble together, such as a cell plugged into your notebook with a cumbersome cable. As the wireless infrastructure builds out to ubiquity, you'll simply expect it to work the same way that you expect to have electricity in a home or an office. And it will change the way you do things.

Marvin MinskyGrooming by Amy Marie for Price Inc.; Prop Styling by Jen Everett.

MOUNTFORD: What I hope happens is that I will let go of my need for the security of tracing wires to know what is connected to what. I want to feel liberated and be untethered. But what I don't have the ability to do right now is have faith that things will come to the right device at the right time, and that I'll be able to control it. There's a new generation of people who are so much more literate and creative and willing to do things than I am. One of my son's first words was "batt," for battery. That troubled me greatly because he seemed to think everything should move or run. Small wooden toys that didn't do anything were uninteresting, which was sad to me.

VARTIAINEN: I look forward to the day when my cell phone is my mobile wallet, with a credit card function built in. On top of mobile Internet and voice, I would also like to have multimedia messaging and imaging capability on my phone. When I go skiing or playing golf and make all those hole-in-ones, I want to immediately send pictures to my house. And to perfect my world, I want to be able to send those images and multimedia messages to my friends, regardless of which telephone service or Internet provider they're signed up with.

HASELTINE: Thank you very much. We have time for some audience questions.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Will the majority of the world's population get access to this technology?

MINSKY: Because emerging technologies are very unreliable, it's nice that the rich people will be the guinea pigs to suffer all of the bugs while the thing gets smoothed out. On the other hand, if you try to impose new ideas on the whole world, then everyone has to suffer the bugs. So in the case of rapidly advancing technology, it pays to be poor.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Will voice continue to be a separate thing or will it be absorbed by the Internet?

LAPORTA: More and more, there's really one network that's doing both, and I think it's tough to label it an Internet or a telephone network.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Could I go to Radio Shack right now and buy a 10-watt transceiver that will automatically hook up with someone down the street?

HARROW: The 802.11B public networks that are springing up in Seattle and in some other cities are examples of just that kind of grassroots development. It's legal because it's in a nonlicensed spectrum. But nobody ever expected this. It is a serendipitous offshoot of the technology being available and of people's desire to have access to the Internet without wires. As we continue to see technology evolve and as the price continues to drop, we'll see more examples of people providing their own solutions.

Peter VartiainenGrooming by Amy Marie for Price Inc.; Prop Styling by Jen Everett.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Humans are still far ahead of where computers are, and our brains are more flexible than computers. If we look at it from that point of view, is it possible that we can see better ways to get to an effective interface?

MOUNTFORD: Yeah, absolutely. Traditionally, technology takes off, and we try to fold the person into it. For example, most speech-recognition systems can't listen at the same time as talk. We're often not aware of the amazingly sophisticated skills that we humans have. One of the problems we're suffering from now is that we've sort of given up on some level, and we let those technology people forge ahead, and the potential artifacts that we might have had as prostheses for ourselves haven't occurred.

LUCKY: I love this slogan at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, because it shows how I think we've changed in those years. The slogan was: "Science finds, industry applies, man conforms."

This discussion is Webcast in its entirety at

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