December 11, 2003

Blackberries to support Wi-Fi in 2004

CNET News reports that RIM "has been testing built-in Wi-Fi connectivity in its BlackBerry devices, the company confirmed Monday. The capability should be available sometime after spring of 2004."

This portion summed up the "whys" and trade-offs between cellular and Wi-Fi data access:
"Blackberry devices wirelessly send and receive data and voice calls over wide-area cellular networks. Supporting wireless transmissions over Wi-Fi would echo recent interest in the communications and networking worlds to combine cellular and Wi-Fi technologies. Data and voice can be exchanged more cheaply over Wi-Fi networks than cellular networks. Wi-Fi networks also allow for higher throughput speeds but have a shorter range than cellular networks."

Between RIM and its third-party developers, I've seen a huge push in the past several months to compete head-on with Palms and Pocket PCs in terms of richer features. It also doesn't hurt that Blackberries are Java-based (J2ME), which opens the doors to more developers and partnering opportunities. I'll still take a Palm-based PDA any day for sheer versatility, but professionals who primarily need a mobile e-mail solution with some fringe PDA features are still well-served by a Blackberry.

It will be interesting to see how RIM incorporates Wi-Fi security features, if any. On one hand, they have to make it drop-dead easy for their customers to hop on any accessible Wi-Fi network. On the other, there could be many sensitive e-mails, contacts, and documents being transmitted over Wi-Fi. I'm still very cognizant of this disturbing and publicized result from an end-user executive's lack of education regarding how these devices work -- and how it negatively impacted his former company, Morgan Stanley.

Without the necessary encryption, I could easily see someone camping out in a highly-traveled Wi-Fi cloud (think major airports and Starbucks in key locations) with some packet sniffing tools to pick up useful intelligence. A war-driver could park in front of a cyber café and broadcast his/her own Wi-Fi network with a stronger signal to drown out the legitimate network and have the patrons send all of their data through the rogue network instead. Scary, isn't it? This isn't a jab at the new Blackberry Wi-Fi feature, but at any mobile Wi-Fi device that doesn't have sufficient security features enabled by default.

Regarding cell phone convergence, I can't see many people using Blackberries as their primary cell phone. In the e-mail/PDA/cell phone combo arena, I still say the PalmOne Treo 600 is king. While I haven't researched it, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a Wi-Fi SD card under consideration for it. Although with the GSM/GPRS Treo version, the bandwidth speed should be pretty decent, but it still can't hold a candle to broadband over Wi-Fi.

Expect to see lower-power 802.11b chips released for mobile devices like PDAs and combo devices, since right now Wi-Fi chipsets put a substantial load on the battery, resulting in shorter use between charging. That's why we're initially seeing more Bluetooth-enabled small devices, which is much easier on battery life. However, that erroneously implies that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are comparable. Bluetooth is better seen as a short-range hard-wired cable replacement, whereas Wi-Fi is better seen as a more robust wireless networking solution. In any event, we're going to see more devices capable of transmitting information over multiple types of wireless networks, particularly cellular and Wi-Fi.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets  |  Privacy & Security
Posted by Jeff Beard