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First, We Shop

One thing that will make us better correspondents is the capacity of our handhelds to pinpoint our location. Indeed, the value of wireless handhelds will be greatly increased when the network can tell where they are. A number of different technologies are now being developed to locate wireless devices with greater accuracy (see companion article: ” Location, Location, Location”), including a promising new system called Bluetooth created by Ericsson and now being exploited by a plethora of companies. Many of the early uses of Bluetooth and its location-finding counterparts will center on that universal human pastime: shopping.

As an example, the screen of a wireless device could continuously change as you walk down a street, tempting you with various offers. Your spouse’s screen might differ from yours, even though you are near the same bookstore, restaurant or shopping center. When you pass a certain store, your “To Do” list stored on a network reminds you to pick up an item that has been spotted in the store’s virtual database, says Lucent’s Howard. Or maybe a local store-it could be a Jiffy Lube or a grocer-wants to drum up business one Thursday morning. It offers a discount for the next two hours to all receptive people within a 1-mile radius.

It’s also conceivable to blend personal “buddy lists” with geographic location, so any networked friends passing within five blocks will know you are at the coffee shop, amenable to old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. No friends in the vicinity? Picture this: A Bluetooth query emanates from your handheld, finds a person with similar hobbies two tables down and makes a consensual wireless introduction.

Systems that approximate these visions are already under development. At Stanford, for instance, electrical engineering grad student James Cutler has demonstrated location-based services for a bookstore to show how digital connections might improve tactile brick-and-mortar shopping. Browsers wandering to the history section, for instance, would be presented with a Top 10 list of history books on their handheld devices and then be able to call up book reviews. To save time, they might pay electronically-maybe after being offered a discount for being a repeat customer. Walk out the door of the store and an electronic receipt is zapped into the device. “Microtransactions” might pay for a traffic report for a fraction of a cent.

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