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At a new manufacturing plant outside San Diego, round-the-clock shifts fill pallets with wireless phones ready to ship to Sprint and other providers. The products in question are thin circuit boards destined for the next generation of handheld devices to access the Internet. Each circuit board inside this Denso International plant reveals why handhelds have become wildly popular: They blend humans and machines perhaps better than any prior invention. Analog chips, which render emotionally toned voice, share the board with digital signal-processing chips that are brilliant at manipulating data. Natural human communication and data-it’s a compact and capable combination that is ready to fuel the next stage of network development: the mobile Internet.

The circuit boards rolling off the Denso line are harbingers of an explosion that may dwarf the growth of PCs. America Online took more than 10 years to reach 20 million subscribers. NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese company with the country’s largest Internet portal, expects to reach that rarefied stratum in less than two years for subscribers of its mobile data service. Within several years a billion people-1 in 6 on the planet-are likely to access the Internet through portable wireless devices, according to analyst and company estimates. “They used to say every home will have a PC,” says Dave Oros, CEO of wireless startup Aether Systems. “I believe every pocket will have a handheld.”

This explosion is coming soon. Within two to three years, large numbers of consumers will have high-speed access to the wireless Internet. Next May, Tokyo will debut commercial operation of a so-called third-generation (3G) wireless network-one in which high-speed data capabilities are built in from the get-go. NTT DoCoMo plans to extend the multimedia network to cover all of Japan within three years. Sprint PCS says that it will introduce 3G service in the United States in late 2001; Vodafone will do the same in Britain in early 2002.

“This will smooth the rough edges of life,” predicts Richard Howard, vice president for wireless research at Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs. If the immobile Internet of the 1990s seemed big, networked handhelds will be bigger: reaching more people and more machines in more countries of the world and offering novel capabilities.

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