By Peter Coffee, PC Week Labs
January 12, 1999 9:00 AM ET
Tough challenges face 3Com Corp. as it gets ready to field-test its
Palm VII device--a pocket-size, instant-on organizer that will provide
wireless Internet access and is intended to operate for several weeks
on two AAA batteries.
Being familiar with the weak points of past attempts at wireless
Internet access, PC Week Labs gives IT buyers this assessment of the
obstacles to overcome and the inventive technical choices 3Com is
making as the company seeks to transform the Palm VII--by its planned
ship date later this year--from a promise to a product.
It's important to recognize that the company is starting from scratch
in asking what mobile users really want from the Internet; the Palm
VII must be evaluated on its own terms, not on its ability to imitate
familiar Web browsers.
Three wishes for wireless
Experienced buyers of portable IT equipment know that three qualities
must be balanced to create an acceptable compromise: The device must
be forgettably small and lightweight, conveniently long-lived between
battery replacements or recharging, and far-reaching in its ability to
connect from many locations.
Harried IT managers also hope for a wireless data connection that
doesn't require as much user hand-holding as past solutions, which
typically involved a cumbersome process of installing drivers and
activating a wireless service account. The Palm VII's integrated
design and wireless network facilities may make the device more
attractive to users and less of a burden to IT managers.
The company's Palm Computing Platform is popular because of its small
size, lightness and long battery life, so it's no surprise that the
Palm VII resembles the current Palm III organizer--without even the
slight added bulk of the add-on wireless modems available for that
Lucent Technologies Inc. will provide its POMP (Peace of Mind
Processor)-15 as the heart of the Palm VII's integral radio
transceiver. Lucent's POMP-15 combines signal conversion and coding
capabilities into a single chip instead of the relatively bulky and
power-hungry trio of chips required by previous wireless devices.
The Palm VII's flip-up antenna, resembling a Popsicle stick that
nestles along one edge of the unit, serves as an alternate power-on
switch. Raising the antenna activates the unit, in a gesture
reminiscent of a "Star Trek" character flipping open a voice
The built-in radio module is tightly coupled with Palm VII user
interactions--it can revert to minimum-power operation whenever the
user is not actively seeking remote data.
The POMP-15 chip draws only 40 microamperes (less than one-eighth of a
milliwatt) in its standby mode, thereby making a significant
contribution to the Palm VII's promised battery life of several weeks
under normal use.
Other Palm VII functions will run on the same Motorola Inc. 68328
Dragonball processor that drives other Palm devices, making the Palm
VII upwardly compatible with applications designed for the current
Palm III and PalmPilot.
How Palm.Net provides
This contrasts with the diversity of processors (each requiring its
own version of an application) that are found in Windows CE devices.
The Palm VII preserves its platform's compatibility advantage, which
will continue even following the long-overdue consolidation of
multiple Windows CE releases slated to get under way this month.
In addition to limiting power consumption through integrated design, a
critical variable in the battery-life equation is a widely dispersed
network. When a connection point is always nearby, a portable device
can minimize its use of transmitter power.
Building a net that works
The wireless network that serves the Palm VII must also provide the
broad and reliable data access, with secure transaction capabilities,
that users expect on the Web. Going beyond these must-have
requirements, 3Com is promising prospective users that they will be
able to set up and manage wireless services directly from newly bought
Palm VII units.
To achieve its goals for network availability and ease of management,
the company is cooperating with a team of partners comprising
BellSouth Wireless Data L.P. for network infrastructure, Certicom
Corp. for encryption and authentication, and Portal Software Inc. for
The product of 3Com's team effort will be Palm.Net, a nationwide
wireless service to be priced at $10 per month for basic services and
to be carried on the BellSouth Intelligent Wireless Network.
The BellSouth network uses Ericsson Inc.'s Mobitex packet network
hardware, with broad service availability enhanced by an expansion of
the system done in the fall: BellSouth Wireless Data claims to serve
more than 93 percent of the U.S. urban business population.
Palm.Net offers a new view of wireless Internet access, optimized for
sustained operation with limited bandwidth and minimal power
Users of other handheld platforms, such as Windows CE devices, will
just have to wait for somebody else to follow 3Com into the water;
Palm.Net will only serve Palm VII devices. There are no apparent plans
to broaden its base to the rest of the handheld wireless marketplace.
Please pass the scissors
Palm.Net's new approach to Web access bears the name of "Web
clipping," a phrase that invokes the image of a reader clipping a
fragment of a page for reference rather than ripping out the entire
Palm.Net doesn't attempt to provide Web surfing, with its
bandwidth-intensive norms of graphically rich pages and its
multibranching hyperlinks that lead from one page to many others.
Instead, Palm.Net queries for specific information, with answers that
are often tied to users' locations at the time of the query. For
example, a request might be for a weather forecast or the location of
the nearest courier pickup point.
The Palm.Net approach minimizes data transfers by retaining forms and
their graphics on the portable unit. (For more about how Palm.Net
works, see related story.) Palm.Net also maximizes effective bandwidth
by using the low-overhead UDP (User Datagram Protocol) rather than the
wired Internet's TCP.
UDP is an electronic message in a bottle, so to speak: It does not
create the equivalent of a virtual circuit to ensure that a packet is
received, but it's efficient in handling the brief bursts of data
associated with Palm.Net's query/response operations.
The Palm.Net server translates between the TCP/IP environment of the
larger Internet and the minimalist UDP of the Palm VII's wireless
interactions. In tests of prototype systems, PC Week Labs observed
response times to interactive queries that were on the order of a few
seconds--although this fails to reflect higher levels of network use
that will presumably arise once the Palm VII is selling in volume.
To enable secure transactions without the overhead of the SSL (Secure
Sockets Layer) that's common on the wired Internet, Palm.Net will be
an early adopter of the lean and mean elliptic curve encryption
technology. (See related story.)
The BellSouth network can take notice of the node at which a portable
user is connecting and provide what 3Com wireless products director
Joe Sipher called "poor man's global positioning": The network
typically knows a user's location to within a few city blocks and can
tailor responses to suit the location.
3Com Corp. has avoided the tainted network computer label for its
forthcoming Palm VII organizer and Palm.Net nationwide wireless
service, but the combination seems to be an effective reinterpretation
of the network computer concept.
To minimize bandwidth requirements and power-draining transmissions
from the portable device, the Palm VII and Palm.Net cooperate by
partitioning applications. On-screen forms for entering data and
displaying query results don't cross the wireless link but are
preinstalled on the handheld unit. Only compact data packets,
representing data field contents, actually need to move between the
remote node and the network.
The authoring language for Palm VII applications is not the relatively
complex Java that network computers favor but the simpler HTML. This
notation is at least as portable as Java and familiar to many
individuals who would never call themselves programmers.
In 3Com demonstrations at its Palm Computing Platform Worldwide
Developer Conference last month, 3Com wireless products director Joe
Sipher captured HTML source from Web pages and transformed that HTML
text (with simple editing operations) into a query application to
deliver the same information to a Palm VII prototype device. 3Com will
promote HTML extensions that will let Web pages support both
small-screen Palm and full-screen browser clients.
Palm VII aims to tame wireless market
A crucial question for those who plan to use the Palm.Net nationwide
wireless service for Internet access from 3Com Corp.'s Palm VII
organizer is the security of wireless data transfers. Many
applications on the forthcoming device will handle financial
transactions and confidential information.
To prove the viability of Palm.Net, 3Com has lined up quite an array
of content providers whose query applications will be preinstalled on
the company's Palm VII units. These providers include Bank of America,
with home banking tools; United Parcel Service, with package tracking
and drop-off location information; Etak Inc., with real-time street
traffic data; Mapquest, with door-to-door travel directions; and
several travel and entertainment guides and ticketing services.
Palm.Net combines high security with low bandwidth by means of
Certicom Corp.'s implementation of elliptic curve cryptography.
Elliptic curves are not the same as ellipses; rather, the name of this
technology originates in the calculation of ellipse perimeters.
In the context of cryptography, elliptic curve methods rely on a
combination of three mathematically difficult problems to produce the
same security with a 160-bit key that other systems can only provide
with a more burdensome 1,024-bit key. Bank of America, MovieFone Inc.
and Ticketmaster Corp. have all committed to using Certicom's crypto
solution for Palm.Net in their Palm VII content.