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Would You Like Some Data With That?
Terry Coatta, Queue Advisory Board Member

You know wireless technology has arrived when the Golden Arches announce they'll be equipping franchises with wireless hotspots. Just a few months ago, McDonald's Corporation unveiled its plan for a pilot wireless access program at 10 restaurants in Manhattan. Several hundred restaurants at various metropolitan centers are to follow later in the year. Combine this with Intel's recent announcement of built-in wireless (802.11) support as part of its new Centrino chipset, and you can reasonably conclude that ubiquitous wireless access may soon be upon us.

Why is it that wireless seems to have taken off so suddenly? Is it really all that compelling to be able to surf the Web while roaming the company corridors? Has e-mail become such a vital means of communication that people can no longer wait until they get back to their desks? Wireless is convenient, no question. It really can make a difference when you're able to send an e-mail or access your company's online systems anytime and anywhere. But do we really need to be connected at all times?

Actually, a much more significant phenomenon may be at play. Ubiquitous connectivity also makes for entirely new ways of interacting with co-workers, collaborators, friends, and even family. In meetings, for example, you may someday find you can actually reach out and touch some real data.

I've seen the transformation that wireless makes possible with my very own eyes. That's because I work for a small company that develops a learning support platform for use in classrooms--which is to say, a platform that lets the instructor and students bring their laptops to class, connect to each other wirelessly, and start learning in a new way. The software gives students a new level at which to interact with each other and the instructor. That doesn't eliminate all the "old-fashioned" types of interactions, but it does create some new opportunities. I've always believed in the "vision" of the software, but the reality of wireless classroom communication far exceeds even my starry-eyed expectations. It's amazing to see just how much more interactive classrooms can become--and how much more engaged students tend to be as a consequence.

This is exactly what wireless now offers us: new modes of communications, leading to new means of working together. This issue of ACM Queue looks at how ongoing developments in wireless technology will continue to affect our lives as technologists, managers, and developers over the coming months. We examine whether wireless is likely to change the way we write applications, while considering whether coming hardware will help to solve problems of reliability and limited bandwidth that often plague wireless networks--among many other topics.

We begin our look at wireless capabilities with an overview written by Mike Ritter of Mobility Networks. Here we survey the wireless landscape and consider how the technology is most likely to evolve over the near term, while asking what it will take to deliver ubiquitous wireless connectivity.

Next up in the Queue comes an in-depth look at the evolving technology developed to enable wireless LAN operation. Bill McFarland and Mike Wong of Atheros Communications offer their insights. Atheros is in the Wi-Fi chip business, and besides being deeply involved in all aspects of that work, McFarland has participated on many of the standards committees responsible for defining the existing 802.11 specifications.

Michael Blackstock and Lyn Bartram then rise above the hardware level to investigate portable collaborative networks, looking specifically at the user interface and usability issues that inevitably arise in the course of building collaborative applications targeted at mobile use.

The two articles following that look into exciting new wireless networking architectures, with an eye to learning more about the possibilities and pitfalls they offer. The first of these, by Robert Poor, Cliff Bowman, and Charlotte Burgess Auburn of Ember Corporation, describes "self-healing" networks, which use a collection of independent nodes to provide for more fault-tolerant network operation. The second, by Robert Berger of Internet Bandwidth Development, examines mesh networks, which, as the name suggests, consist of collections of wireless nodes in which neighbor-to-neighbor connections and routing enable extended network capabilities. In both cases, the articles explore what's involved in developing and using these types of networks.

Our last feature article looks at the implications of using Web services in an environment where the user may have to cope with periods of no network connectivity--a problem likely to afflict wireless environments for quite some time to come. Microsoft's Doug Terry and Venugopalan Ramasubramanian show how local HTTP caching can help provide a more seamless user experience in the face of these outages.

We round out our coverage of wireless by interviewing Mario Mazzola, the man who directs Cisco product development. The focus here turns to the security challenges facing us in a world already teeming with wireless consumer electronics devices. Stu Feldman, IBM's vice president of Internet technology, makes the inquiries on behalf of Queue.

In keeping with this magazine's raison d'etre, each of these contributions attempts to point out issues you're likely to find yourself facing in the near future. If you don't find that sufficiently compelling, I hope you at least find the possibilities sufficiently enticing to start you thinking about how you might best be able to apply wireless technology to your own work. Because, who knows, maybe it will be you who ends up using wireless to build tomorrow's killer application. Q

TERRY COATTA is the vice president of development at a small start-up firm in Vancouver, BC, that is creating real-time collaborative software for use in higher education (www.silicon-chalk.com). Prior to that, he was the director of development for distributed systems at Open Text Corporation, where he arrived via the acquisition of the Network Software Group, a small consulting company where he served as president. He has a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of British Columbia (1994), where his area of research was distributed systems. He has worked with and continues to be interested in distributed component systems such as CORBA, COM, and EJB.

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Originally published in Queue vol. 1, no. 3
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