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A Moving Experience

The power of wireless connections goes beyond greasing the wheels of consumerism. The technology also will bring Net access to all those people who don’t work at a desk with a fast, hard-wired connection. Medical professionals, teachers, business travelers and delivery workers, for instance, are starting to toss away clipboards and claim forms in favor of a wireless web of Palms, PocketPCs and WAP phones.

Dallas’ Veterans Administration Medical Center is a case in point. According to a 1999 study by the Institute of Medicine, some 7,000 Americans die each year due to improper administration of medication. In an effort to avoid such mistakes, the hospital recently installed a wireless network that links handhelds carried by medical staff. Dallas VA nurse Ruth Jara says patients in the VA nursing home may be taking as many as 15 medications, often with similar-sounding names. The potential for confusion and human error is boundless. With the new system, a robot dispenses the correct dose and barcodes each medication. Nurses scan their own ID badges, the barcodes on the medication and the patient’s wristband. A central computer correlates this data to ensure that the right dose of the right drug is administered and to create an audit trail.

Teachers at Smithtown High School on Long Island are using Palms and a wireless network to scan student ID cards for attendance at every class as well as processing tests and reports. Administrators get special handhelds equipped with master schedules of all students. According to Jay Landau, instructional coordinator for the town’s school district, the devices let teachers spend less time on paperwork and more on instruction. The ID card of a student roaming the hall can be scanned, instantly revealing where he or she is supposed to be.

Now!

Next-generation networks and devices could bestow on users an almost omniscient awareness-at least for items deemed personally important.

A desktop computer is an ally in thought, knowledge creation, new product design and exploration of the far reaches of the Web. Handhelds, by contrast, present a narrower slice of information that tends to support simpler decisions: Yes or no. Turn left or right. Alert if malfunction occurs. Vibrate if a specific stock reaches $42. It is no accident that Aether Systems and many other wireless companies got started in the financial industry, where simple, timely data triggers quick trades. According to Research In Motion, maker of two-way pagers with tiny keypads for mobile workers, nearly 80 percent of pages require a fast response. Mobile workers can respond directly with the device and get confirmation of messages received. But both timeliness and awareness seem to be getting more important in fast-paced business.

As handheld devices evolve, users will be able to choose their preferred way of getting this instantaneous information; they’ll decide, for instance, whether they want to listen to information, read it or both. They will be able to reconfigure their factory-fresh devices with Java programs from the Internet, for instance. Devices could eventually subsume most of the functions of the paraphernalia people now feel compelled to carry with them: wallet, keys, address and appointment book, notepad, tape recorder. Personal medical monitoring functions and records might be added too.

As these devices find their way into every pocket and purse, they bring with them privacy issues. The small screens are peepholes into the Internet, arguably the largest assemblage of data ever. But can that portal be reversed by government or multinational corporations to build an intimate portrait of the user? Much of the value of digital companions boils down to getting relevant information at the right place or the right time. Yet getting such information often requires divulging preferences, voluntarily or tacitly. The better this information, the more personalized the service-but also the more exposed the user is to misappropriation of personal data. Moreover, wireless services that work by determining the user’s location can open up scary possibilities. Do we really want to leave an electronic trail of our whereabouts and allow ourselves to be tracked like packages, revealing our preferences, income levels and habits all the while? Over the next several years, the challenge will be to design devices and networks to avoid pitfalls-while building a system so useful and benign that you won’t ever want to turn it off.

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