Academic journal article Language, Learning & Technology

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES : Wireless Networks

Academic journal article Language, Learning & Technology

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES : Wireless Networks

Article excerpt

One of the most striking changes in the use of technology in the last year or so has been the explosive growth in the use of wireless networks for Internet and local network access. We will be looking in this column at the varieties of wireless connectivity now in use, including infrared, cellular, and Wi-Fi (802.11b), as well as those just now arriving on the scene, such as Bluetooth and 3G. The promise of ubiquitous wireless networks dramatically enhances the usefulness of small Internet-capable devices.

Infrared

Infrared (IR) ports have been standard on most laptops and PDA's ("personal digital assistants") for quite some time. Some printers and cell phones come equipped with infrared ports as well. The principal use has been to provide a communication channel between devices for synchronization, backup, or file transfer. The transfer rate is not as fast (4 Mbps or megabits per second) as wired connections (such as USB), although now some IR ports can transfer at a zippier 16 Mbps. IR ports are also used to transfer contact information or calendar entries between hand-held devices. This use is quite popular in Japan and Europe, particularly for exchanging business cards and downloading short messages. Utilities are available which allow for IR interoperability among Palms, WindowsCE/PocketPC devices, and even older Newton Messagepads (JetSend, Peacemaker, BackTalk). While IR is the granddaddy of wireless protocols, new applications continue to be developed for the its use, including InfoPort, a product for beaming large documents to Palm devices from kiosks or other public terminals (being used at the University of South Dakota for transferring documents to students), and Infrared Financial Messaging (IrFM), a new "point and pay" wireless payment standard. Financial transactions, in fact, are seen as a major future use of IR, as it is a more secure means of communication than other wireless protocols, since devices have to be lined up in close proximity to one another.

What allows communication among digital devices through infrared is a common set of specifications developed by the Infrared Data Association (IrDA) and first published in 1994, the most significant of which is the Object Exchange protocol or OBEX. A project is underway at the University of Tromso (Norway) to develop an open source implementation of OBEX which promises to make available OBEX functionality without license fees (to Extended Systems). In a rare example of not re-inventing the wheel with each new technological advance, OBEX has been selected as the standard for file exchange on the new Bluetooth wireless protocol. IrDA capability is built into mainstream operating systems including MS Windows, Linux, and MacOS. But IrDA compatible ports are also being added to devices such as cameras (the Casio WQV3 cameras) and scanners (Hewlett-Packard CapShare and the QuickLink Pen from WizCom). Scanning text or images into a hand-held scanner, which can then be beamed and stored on a hand-held computer offers interesting possibilities for collecting such materials as newspaper clippings or realia for language learning purposes.

Bluetooth

A wireless protocol which has been highly touted in the last several years is Bluetooth, developed originally by Ericsson in Sweden in 1994 and named for Harald Bluetooth, the Viking king who united Denmark and Norway in the 10th century. Bluetooth uses a short-wave, always-on radio signal that lets devices of all kinds communicate with one another, including cell phones, printers, laptops, and hand-held computers. Since it uses RF (radio frequency) waves, communication does not require a line-of-sight connection between devices, as does IR. Like IR, Bluetooth is short range (the normal limit is 10 meters) but is also omnidirectional and can travel through non-metal obstructions (clothes, furniture, walls). Longer range transmitters, capable of sending signals up to 100 meters, are also being developed. …

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