Mobile and Wireless Devices Help Educators & Students on the Move

On February 14, 1946, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania activated the ENIAC, the world's first programmable computer, which stood ten feet tall, stretched 80 feet wide and weighed 30 tons. The ENIAC could perform relatively basic math computations.

Today, 50 years later, consumers can execute a wide range of applications -- from taking notes to browsing the World Wide Web -- on so-called personal digital assistants (PDAs) weighing as little as 1.5 pounds. Originally targeted at business professionals, these and other mobile computing devices have realized a widespread acceptance among educators.

International Data Corp., of Framingham, Mass., predicts that shipments of "smart handheld devices" will increase from 1.5 million units in 1995 to 6.2 million units in 1999, with wireless communications driving the growth.

This article provides an overview of the latest mobile and wireless products, with special emphasis on the implications for education.

Notebooks Slim Down

One of the fastest growing areas revolves around notebook computers, which are now widely used by instructors and students alike, especially at colleges and universities. A main factor in this growth has been steady price reductions over the last six months.

For example, Compaq recently lowered prices on its LTE 5000 family of notebook PCs by up to 28%. And, despite their small size, today's laptops in many cases pack as much power as their desktop counterparts.

Hewlett Packard's OmniBook 5500 CT 5/133, shipping this May, integrates a 133MHz Pentium processor, 1.35GB of hard disk space and 16MB of RAM (expandable to 64MB). Reflecting an important trend, the OmniBook also offers a built-in 4 Mbps infrared (IR) port, for quickly transferring information to/from another portable or a desktop machine.

Similarly, Farallon's AirDock plugs into the serial and ADB ports of a Macintosh, enabling IR-equipped PowerBooks to access files or network resources. MacUser selected AirDock as a 1995 Editors Choice Award Finalist for Best New Portable Computing Product.

Observers also predict that CD-ROM drives will become standard in value-line notebooks, as will longer-lasting batteries and more modular options. In an independent test, the Dell Latitude XPi P120D operated an average of four hours and 21 minutes -- which should outlast even the most long-winded professor.

For those looking at middle- to high-end models -- costing between $3,000 and $5,000 -- stay tuned for a new wave of ultra-slim notebooks, built with a unique footprint that allows for larger LCD displays and keyboards.

While Apple's PowerBook remains popular in academia, the arrival of Windows 95 last fall has sparked a strong demand for notebook PCs designed for this new OS. Gateway 2000's Solo 120, for instance, ships in a Best Buy Configuration with Windows 95 and Microsoft Office 95.

PC Cards Catch On

One of the most promising technologies for mobile computing is the PC Card (or PCMCIA). Frost & Sullivan, of Mountain View, Calif., reports that roughly 95% of laptops and notebooks will have PC Card slots by the end of this year.

PC Cards can be fax/modems, Ethernet adapters, hard disks, memory and more. Their modular nature lets one add new capabilities to existing machines as needed down the line.

Communications seems to be the most prevalent application for PC Cards. From Ositech comes the V.34 Jack of Diamonds, which works in conjunction with a cellular phone for wireless data transmission at speeds up to 14.4 Kbps. It utilizes the MNP 10EC protocol to reduce signal distortions.

Recognizing the potentially huge market for wireless Internet access, telecommunications firms are moving quickly to expand related services. MCI recently extended local access coverage for its XstreamAir cellular service to 36 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. Sprint, meanwhile, is currently building an all-digital wireless calling network based on personal communications services (PCS) technology. Other firms are pushing satellite communications systems. The deregulation of the telecom industry should induce even more competition and innovation.

Taking a different approach than cellular modems, the AllPoints Wireless PC Card from Megahertz, the Mobile Communications Division of U.S. Robotics, operates over the radio-based RAM Mobile Data Network, which is available nationwide in over 90% of urban business areas. The antenna-equipped card requires no cables or cords to fax, send and receive e-mail, or access databases (with third-party software).

Increasingly, educators wish to access their school's LAN from remote locations. NovaLink Technologies' NovaLAN 288 Modem allows them to do just that. TDK Systems and Xircom are two other companies that produce Ethernet LAN PC Cards.

Presenters on the move will appreciate portable CD-ROM drives designed with a PC Card interface, such as Panasonic's KXL-D720, a double-speed CD-ROM drive that weighs just 14 ounces and operates on AC power or six AA batteries.

Mobile SW Packages

Of course, a notebook computer by itself will do little good. Luckily, dozens of software publishers offer packages to meet the demands of mobile professionals. Due to space constraints, only a few are mentioned below.

One main software genre provides access to an office PC or network from any location. With Traveling Software's LapLink for Windows 95, one can remotely read and send e-mail, run applications, access files and transfer information in a single communication session. SpeedSync technology saves long distance charges by transferring only the changed portions of files.

Symantec's Norton pcANYWHERE 32 utilizes the same process, known as delta-level synchronization. Both remote access programs benefit technical support personnel as well because hosts can "take over" a distant machine to diagnose and solve problems.

For workgroup collaboration, Lotus Development Corp. has enhanced its award-winning Notes client/server messaging package. Thus, people scattered around the world can work on a "paperless project" stored in a central database.

From Palmtops to PDAs

Even though notebook computers have come down in size and price, there has been a strong demand for even smaller devices, namely palmtops, pen tablets and PDAs.

Lacking the full functionality of computers, most units serve primarily as organizers, allowing one to take notes, store phone numbers, track appointments, etc. Others support wireless communications via cellular modems and infrared links.

Even calculators have evolved into powerful instructional tools. Texas Instruments' TI-92 performs 3D graphing and matrix operations; with optional GRAPH LINK software, students can transfer data between the TI-92 and a computer.

A proliferation of software for other handheld products has fueled their adoption in classrooms nationwide. The Brainchild Personal Learning System from Brainchild Corp. bills itself as a "24-hour computer lab" for K-12 students. Among the software titles available for the PLS-1000 are Kaplan's SAT Preparation and Skills Bank's basic skills tutorials. Another cartridge-based device, Franklin Electronic Publishers' BOOKMAN system ships with a built-in reference work and one or two open slots for adding other "books."

When Apple introduced the Newton, the first PDA (personal digital assistant) in 1993, many reviewers ridiculed the inaccuracy of its handwriting recognition. Although this feature remains imperfect, PDAs certainly have come a long way since then.

Apple has continued to be an innovator in this market, most recently with the MessagePad 130, released this April. Responding to customer feedback, the 130 offers controllable back lighting and a new non-glare screen for viewing and entering information in any lighting condition. Based on the Newton 2.0 operating system, the new MessagePad recognizes both handwriting and graphics, and can share this data with Windows or Mac computers.

A library of 1,000 third-party applications (many shareware) makes the MessagePad an attractive choice for education. One notable program is Sunburst Communications' Learner Profile, with which teachers may take attendance and conduct authentic assessments while students are actively engaged in learning.

Plus, fast becoming standard, PC Card slots in PDAs open the door to a virtually limitless array of communications options. For example, by loading AllPen Software's NetHopper Server onto a single Macintosh dialed into the Internet, multiple students with MessagePads containing PC Card modems can wirelessly browse the Web.

A Booming Industry

These days, however, Apple has no shortage of company in the booming PDA industry. Sony's second-generation PDA, the Magic Link PIC-2000 ships with a 14.4K modem, 2MB memory and dual PC Card slots. It also includes software to access the AT&T PersonaLink messaging service, America Online and OAG FlightLine. "Our 'walk-away voice' wireless option allows our customers to use a cellular phone with the Magic Link communicator for e-mail and faxing, then disconnect it for regular phone use as they wish," Alex Gruzen, a marketing director for Sony.

Realizing that some folks still prefer keyboards over digital pens for inputting text, Sharp Electronics' Zaurus ZR-5700 and Hewlett Packard's OmniGo 100 both integrate a small QWERTY keyboard. Among the enhancements to the Zaurus are a direct contact search, smarter date fields and retention of preferences after restoring from backup.

Two brand new pen-based devices provide a glimpse of the likely direction this market will take.

First, Fujitsu's Stylistic 1000 closely matches a notebook computer in terms of processing power and display. The 3.4-pound tablet sports a 100MHz 486DX4 CPU and has as an optional 7.8-inch dual-scan color display. Moreover, the Stylistic 1000 runs Windows 95 and delivers up to six hours of continuous operation.

At the other end of the price spectrum, U.S. Robotics' Pilot debuts this May at an SRP of $299. Based on the Palm Operating System, the Pilot automatically synchronizes its information with a personal computer or LAN at the touch of a button (when inserted into a docking cradle). Weighing just 5.5 ounces, the organizer supports applications such as Now Up-to-Date, Starfish Software's SideKick, Microsoft Schedule+ and Campbell Services' OnTime.

Casio and Motorola also offer PDAs similar to the Newton and Magic Link, respectively. And, if all those choices don't satisfy you, Compaq and Toshiba have announced plans to release handheld units based on Pegasus, Microsoft's forthcoming small- footprint operating system.

Other Wireless Solutions

For those who don't need to compute away from their desk, but wish to remain accessible all the time, pagers are a simple solution. One of the most exciting developments is two-way paging. With SkyTel's 2-Way system, a person can respond to a message immediately by choosing from a list of responses composed by the sender, such as "On my way" or "Will call later." In addition, users of the HP LX palmtop can type in their own, more detailed response.

Observers predict that, someday soon, every person will have one phone number that follows them wherever they go. BellSouth Wireless has already endorsed that concept with its Personal Number Service (PNS). Callers dial one number and PNS routes calls according to a subscriber- programmed Reach List.

Even when teachers and staff members are on campus, reaching them by phone can be difficult, to say the least. Ericsson Business Communications solves that problem with Freeset, a CT3-based wireless phone system. Base stations, strategically located throughout a site, are wired to a digital interface at the PBX. Intelligent cordless handsets continually search for and lock on to the strongest base station signal available.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.