21, 2002 | gear
Wireless LAN Module
for Palm m500 Handhelds
by Cory Doctorow
NETWORK IS THE COMPUTER
Four or five years ago, I had a sea-change in my computing experience.
One day, I realized that I had started to view any computer not
connected to the Internet as just a fancy game-console-cum-jumped-up-typewriter.
Working on an airplane or from a café just felt wrong.
This feeling deepened and magnified a thousandfold the day I got
my first iBook and Airport Base Station. If you've used wireless
networking on a laptop, you know what I'm talking about -- snatching
the Internet out of the very air is an experience you won't go back
from willingly (another one is TiVo -- I've stopped watching TV
in hotel rooms because I can't choose among thirty hours of custom-recorded
programming and skip commercials). Just as TiVo ruined me for dumb
TV, 802.11 ruined me for wired networking or no networking at all.
And it keeps on getting better. 802.11 isn't just a technology,
it's a movement, an ad-hoc world of open base-stations around
the world. Just haul out your 802.11-equipped device and start hunting
about for a network. If you're in a major city, chances are you'll
find one before you go a block. Forget 3G and Blackberry and all
those other pale imitations of connectivity: community wireless
is the real shit: fast, unmetered, insecure and out of control.
I've spent the past couple weeks wandering around with a Palm
m500 PDA and a Xircom Wireless LAN Module. The latter is a kind
of sled that snaps over the back of the PDA, adding a half-inch
or so to the thickness of the device. It's very cleverly engineered
to ride on the device without obscuring the IR port or requiring
a new cover, and even with the added thickness, it still rides comfortably
in your pocket. There's an external power jack, and you can charge
your PDA and the module with one plug.
sells a version of this device for the Handspring Visor, which protrudes
an inch or so from the top of the handheld, making it nearly impossible
to carry around, since there aren't any decent "work-through" cases
that can accomodate the bulge, which means that you've got to walk
around with your Visor's naked screen exposed to knocks and scratches.
The Handspring version has some serious advantages over the Palm
version, though: because of Handspring's unique Springboard expansion
technology, it's possible to preload the module's memory with a
browser and email client. The user-experience in incredible: plug
the module in, enter the ID of your local network and hey-presto,
you're online, with a full-featured browser (Handspring's most excellent
"Blazer" software) and a nice little mailer. The mean time between
removing the shrinkwrap and a total wireless orgasm is all of 45
But the Palm m500's architecture makes this trick impossible.
The module does load its own drivers, but you still have to synch
your PDA to install Internet utilities before it can do anything
interesting. The m500 does have an expansion slot that can accomodate
an external flash-card, and Xircom would do very well to bundle
a small card with the device, pre-loaded with a browser, mailer,
and ssh client.
Both devices have a massive, critical failing: They are incapable
of automatically detecting nearby networks and automatically connecting
to them. In the Mac world, the Airport popup menu shows nearby networks
and lets you choose one to connect to; in the Windows world, specifying
"ANY" as your network ID connects you to the strongest nearby signal
automatically. But there's no such equivalent for the Xircom device.
I spoke with Xircom about this, and they told me that there's
an proposed standard for automatically negotiating a connection
to nearby networks, and until that emerges, Xircom doesn't want
to try to roll their own solution.
This is, of course, a terrible decision. Needing to know the name
of the network you wish to connect to means that you can't roam
with your device, can't pop onto a friend's network without hassling
over spelling and capitalization of their network name, and so on.
It's as though Xircom has decided that 802.11 users exist only
in the enterprise, where sysadmins are available to configure all
devices with network names and passwords. Of course, this is hardly
the case. Enterprises are dragging their feet on 802.11, because
of much-publicized security holes in WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy,
the standard means of securing an 802.11 network) and the inherent
conservatism of the suits who make the technology decisions.
NOT CORPORATE USE
And where wireless has penetrated the enterprise, it's done so
because users have demanded it, demanded laptops equipped with wireless
cards so that they can login to networks at home, on the street,
and at cafés (MobileStar has a very expensive wireless network
with access-points in Starbucks in several major US cities, though
the Xircom modules can't negotiate sign on with them due to incompatibilities
with their proxy). Just as users adopted PDAs, laptops, and cellphones
in the enterprise because these devices had utility outside of the
workplace, 802.11 is being driven by personal, not corporate use.
When a pager was a device that doctors and key personnel used to
get messages from an answering service, they were a burden, an imposition
on your private life. As soon as these devices started to accept
messages from anyone, they became a perk. Ignoring this fact
has severely limited the utility of the Xircom modules.
But that's software. Surely, Xircom will see the error of their
ways (or adopt this soi-distant standard) and produce an update
with automatic network detection and connection.
NETWORK IS THE PDA
A pocket-sized network device is fantastically useful. A small
device with easy text-entry, a real browser and mailer, and a sharp
screen that's connected to the Internet without any wires changes
Every factoid is at your fingertips. Maps, mail, and messaging,
always there. Google becomes your auxillary brain.
The community wireless movement is rapidly saturating the airwaves
with free Internet. Home access points are dropping to just about
a hundred bucks, and the cards are going for as little as $75. Once
the network detection software exists for these devices and their
successors, we'll be living in a trekkian utopia of communicators
connected to everyone and everything.
I can't wait.
Doctorow's first novel, "Down
and Out in the Magic Kingdom" will be published by Tor
Books in Fall 2002. He won the Campbell
Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer at the 2000 Hugo
Awards. He co-edits the weblog Boing
Boing, and co-founded the software company OpenCola.
His most recent book is The
Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction (co-written
with Karl Schroeder).
Mindjack recently published an excerpt from his new novel, Eastern
Standard Tribe. He and Bruce
Sterling will deliver a
keynote address on the Death of Scarcity at this year's SXSW
Interactive festival in Austin, TX.