net.wars: The big, blue culture gap between the teeth

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 02 May 2003

>Can I just tell readers who don't know me (or remind those who do) that I'm American? Fine. Americans are famous for jumping on whatever is the latest hot, new technology. WiFi, 16GHz microchips, brushed-metal PDAs, robot dogs, we don't care. We like shiny new toys we can use to kid ourselves that we're working. But every so often a piece of technology comes along that we just don't get, and the cultural gap goes the other way.

Wendy M Grossman

This is what happened with cellphones. While Americans struggle to get their cellphone to work consistently across the US and have to throw away their phone and phone number if they want to change networks, Europeans can take the tiny little chip (SIM card) out of their mobile phone and stick it in their PDA for the day if they like.

I can take the phone I bought in London, go to Knokke-Heist in Belgium, and it works. I can even use it to connect my laptop to the Internet to pick up my email without a cable. True, this is at the antediluvian speed of 9600bps. But the damn thing works. The same laptop has no way to talk to my near-identical American phone. (Although, to be fair, I could buy it a thing by Ositech that would cable them into touch with each other.)

From a European perspective, the US is scrambling to catch up, mobile phonewise, which is why it seemed so outrageous that Congressman Issa wants Iraq to adopt American mobile phone technology.

A similar gap is opening up with respect to Bluetooth. If you're going to tell me Bluetooth isn't quite ready for Prime Time, well, I agree with you, and I said so in the Daily Telegraph last November. If there's a vital rule to follow with Bluetooth for now, it's to make sure in the shop that the device you want to use works with the device you want to use it with. The conceptual design of Bluetooth - LAN profiles, voice profiles, serial port profiles - makes sense only if you're someone who is building on historical knowledge of computers. It will Get Better.

That doesn't mean it's doomed to "lose" to WiFi (802.11b). The two have little in common except the fact that they're both radio and they both use the same bit of the spectrum - 2.4GHz. That's because that's the part of the spectrum that has been available for unlicensed use. Lots of things use it. Is WiFi going to kill microwave ovens?

Here's what WiFi does: wireless connections at relatively high speeds (11mbps) and relatively high power consumption. Here's what Bluetooth does: wireless connections at much lower speeds but much lower power consumption. You use WiFi to hook your PDA to an ethernet network. You use Bluetooth to hook together your PDA, laptop, mobile phone, wireless headset, and digital camera. It competes with two things: all those damn cables, and infrared.

Michael Kanellos, writing for C|Net offered a classic of the genre a couple of weeks back. Here is a man who has trouble with the concept of a radio. He thinks that the only way to use a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone with a Bluetooth-enabled notebook is to stick the phone between your knees. So that's why "WiFi won out." Whereas, in reality, you know, it's not that Europeans like clutching mobile phones between their knees, it's that they have pockets. To be fair, plenty of other Americans do get it.

The size of the blue gap became apparent this week when Palm's Tungsten C was revealed: the first 64Mb Palm has WiFi but not Bluetooth, and there is no driver (and may never be) for the Bluetooth SD card Palm already makes. Americans may be happy -- "Hey, it'll link to my home network" -- but Europeans are howling, "I want Bluetooth!" And most of those Europeans also have home WiFi networks. They may be blue, but they're not stupid. (What happened to true-blue Americans?) Looking at the Tungsten C's spec, it's easy to think, as online forum discussions suggest, that Palm tailored it to US corporate buyers . Those customers seem likely to tick off the super-fast processor, the 4x increase in memory, and the WiFi and VoIP readiness as desirables. With Sony Clies turning into entertainment centres, this may be a logical brand differentiation. But even so, folks: don't European business customers count?

Ultimately, I think the reason this gap exists is that the driver behind wireless in the US is PCs and the Internet, and the driver behind wireless in Europe is mobile telephony. Now, this may change: Europe is putting in 802.11b hotspots and the US is buying mobile phones by the barrelload. But that's how it's been.

Of course, the reason all this has taken on a personal interest for me is that I find I'm in the market for a shiny, new PDA. I want to stop emailing the people I'm in meetings with asking when the next one is because I'm not sure which paper notebook I scrawled the date in. I want it to synch to Ecco (means Palm); I want it to have a thumbboard; I want it to have color* (for GIFs of maps). And I want it to have wireless. I want it to have both. Doesn't exist.

* color - well, I warned you I was American ...

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).