Users can now buy GPRS modems to provide fast Internet access on mobile computers.
Dell has just introduced a GPRS solution combing its Latitude and Inspiron laptop families with a PCCard-based GPRS modem and a service contract through either One2One or BT Cellnet.
The £240 add-on offers users Internet access of between 35Kbps and 56Kbps, similar to a dial-up modem Internet connection from a desk-based PC.
The cheaper Small Business version comes with a One2One GPRS service that allows users to transfer up to 20Mbytes of data per month for a monthly fee of £30. The Enterprise Edition uses the BT Cellnet service and offers up to 50Mbytes of bandwidth each month for £50 per month.
Another example of fast mobile Internet access is the Nokia Communicator 9210 handheld computer, which doubles as a phone. When connected to the Orange network, this is able to provide Internet access up to 28.8Kbps through a technique known as high-speed circuit switched data (HSCSD).
This effectively gives users two timeslots on the network, doubling the bandwidth on downloads from 14.4 Kbps to 28.8 Kbps for a cost of 25 pence per minute on the Orange network. Ray Haddon, Nokia mobile phones business development manager, says that at this speed "it becomes feasible for users to download their e-mail".
Another new phone from Nokia is the 7650, a GPRS-based phone equipped with a mini digital camera. While geared to the snap-happy consumer who can use the phone to take and send e-mail pictures directly, it can also be used in certain business areas.
One example Haddon suggests is insurance damage assessment. "An insurance assessor could take digital pictures of the damage, add text and audio then send all the information back to the office."
Multimedia messaging like this is one area 3G networks are set to revolutionise. At the moment users can send text messages via short message system (SMS) over the mobile phone GSM network. However the Wireless Village Initiative, an industry group focused on building standards for messaging, has just released a specification for multimedia messaging.
Meet the Village people
Frank Dawson, who chairs this committee, says the overall goal is to allow people to communicate through different services between mobile phones, PCs and fixed-line telephones. As an example, he says, "you could send an instant message from your PC through SMS to a mobile phone". Another is using GPRS and wireless messaging software on a mobile phone to send instant messages to friends and contacts using instant messenger services from AOL and MSN.
There are four main parts to the specification. The first is called Presence Services. This, according to Dawson, "will subtly change the way people communicate". He says that through Presence users would be able to understand the availability of people they are trying to contact.
It will allow people to tell those trying to contact them the means by which they can be contacted: e-mail, voicemail, phone or instant messaging. Practically speaking, this service will work in a similar way to the Profiles menu on some mobile phones today that is used to change the phone ring depending on whether the user is indoors, outdoors or does not want to be disturbed.
The second service is Instant Messaging. This uses the Web's http protocol to send messages in near real time between users. The third service within the version 1.0 specification from the Wireless village is Shared Content Services - allowing groups of users to exchange messages and multimedia content. Finally for people with legacy handsets, the specification offers a Command-line Protocol. This uses SMS to communicate with the Wireless Village.
Wireless connectivity is a fast growing area. Users have a choice of handheld computers, notebook PCs, mobile phones, wireless Internet technologies and operators. In time it is likely that these will come together to change the landscape of mobile communications forever. But for now the dominant mobile phone standard is still GSM (global system for mobiles) and it will be some time before everyone has high-speed wireless Internet access from his or her phone.