Astral travelling and mobile computing superficially have a lot in common. Astral travelling is an out-of-body experience whose practitioners pepper their speech with arcane terms like "ectoplasm" and "channelling". Mobile computing is an out-of-office experience whose practitioners pepper their speech with arcane terms like "ITU-T V27ter" and "PCMCIA".
Seen from that angle, there are an uncomfortable number of similarities between the two disciplines. But there is also one vital differentiator. Astral travelling is done most successfully by people seen as having a few loose connections while mobile computing success depends on keeping loose connections to an absolute minimum.
That connectivity and mobile computing are inseparable these days is beyond question. At Sydney's Laptopland, whose main client base is composed of mid-sized corporations, virtually 100 per cent of the systems marching out its doors are packaged with modems. The few that aren't soon reappear for a retrofit, says Laptopland MD Derek Merdith. One reason is the average payback from mobile computers with communications capabilities is almost twice that from mobile computing alone, according to market researchers IDC.
A rising tide of mobile managers and teleworkers is demanding simpler, more reliable and cost-effective fax, electronic mail, file transfer, and corporate database access.
The fattest slice of the mobile computing pie is filled with electronic-mail. It began with internal e-mail, then executives began checking in from home. Next it broadened to take in selected external business clients and finally, thanks to the Internet, to all business clients.
But the cross-section of mobile workers also takes in auditors tapping on their laptops in client premises, stockroom workers scanning barcodes into wireless handsets to update their inventory or point of sale systems, insurance and mortgage brokers accessing their corporate database or filing loan applications from the homes of potential customers, and blue collar staffers getting work orders on the road.
While they are exchanging e-mail, dipping into corporate databases or scouring the Internet for information, their virtual offices are being equipped with an ever-expanding array of hardware - portable computers for heavy lifting, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) or palmtops for less resource-intensive, specialised applications from e-mail to calendaring and pagers for receiving urgent or Just-in-Time information. Supplying the connectivity is an increasingly complex smorgasbord of wireline and wireless options.
It adds up to a kaleidosocopic market turbo-charged with opportunities for vendors and resellers that have the stamina to keep up with the pace of change.
The entire mobile computing and communications scene is a heady mix of technologies undergoing generational changes. Pushing and shoving for mind share are:
Wireless mobile data technologies (especially data-enabled GSM digital phones)Ever-soaring portable computer performanceCombination LAN/WAN cardsAustralian telecomms deregulationAdvances in remote-access solutionsThe irresistible surge of the Internet and electronic-commerceSome trends are well-entrenched, others are still building up a head of steam. Among the most interesting are combination PC cards delivering one-stop shop LAN and modem connectivity, data-enabled GSM phones and integrated multi-modem boards for Windows NT and Unix servers.
The increasingly blurred boundary between office LANs and wide area networking is highlighted by growing demand for single cards combining LAN and fax/modem features.
Ethernet card supplier Xircom is one of the LAN specialists that has added modem technology to its kitbag in the past 18 months.
Pieter Vanderschaar, Xircom's country manager for Australia and New Zealand, said the company's Credit Card Ethernet Modem, (CEM) com-bination cards now account for one third of revenues.
Demand for the combo card, which takes up only one slot while giving users access to their office LAN at Ethernet speeds, plus the wider world of Internet and e-mail via the modem, was "pretty general across the mobile workforce", according to Vanderschaar.
More recently, the cards have been establishing a foothold in the education sector, particularly Victoria's private school system, he said.
Xircom's offerings include cards that have 10Mbit/sec Ethernet as well as a 33.6Kbit/sec modem on board, but combination cards are becoming more feature-fat. Around September or October, Xircom plans an Australian release of a card combining 10/100 Ethernet, 56K modem and GSM connectivity. Already released in the US, it will retail here for around $550 (ex tax) and will be upgradable to specific data-ready GSM mobile phones by selecting the appropriate cable connector. The new card will initially support Ericsson, Siemens and Philips phones followed by Nokia and Motorola.
"Combo cards are basically a corporate choice, a lot of large companies like them," said Hayes Microcomputer Products' general manager Andrew Phillips.
Hayes is among those vendors that have already rolled out data cards allowing mobile computer users to untether themselves from the copper phone system using GSM digital phones.
GSM, or Global Systems for Mobile Commu-nications to give the standard its full name, is more hype and hope than reality at the moment in Australia as far as data communications is concerned.
However, products are here and interest is building, fuelled by the huge marketing push from Telstra and the digital phone vendors. As far as Telstra is concerned, GSM represents the future of Australia's switched mobile phone network with analog mobile services due to end after 2000.
But GSM has a few drawbacks when it comes to sending data. One is speed. The current ceiling is 9.6Kbit/sec although 19.2Kbit/sec speeds could be here by late next year and carriers are talking about the possibility of much higher speeds in future.
"The question is who is going to be willing to pay the type of dollars that will be needed to transmit data at 60K," asks Felix Wong, technical and finance director of Advanced Portable Technologies.
Mary Britain-White, founder of mobile data applications developer Retriever Communications, which has just bought Apple's mobile information systems business in Australia, doesn't see the slow speed as a fatal drawback.
"If you are just taking an office application and sticking it on the end of a phone, yes, the speed is pretty poor," she said.
"But you design your applications around that level of pipe and how people work in the field so the speed is not an encumbrance."
In other words, the onus is on IS managers to optimise their mobile applications for the available bandwidth.
Another difficulty is standards. The physical connections between laptops and each manufacturer's GSM handset are different. Even within one manufacturer's range, they can vary from model to model.
"It is a nightmare," says Laptopland's Merdith. "We tend to stick to the manufacturer's own data card so we have one point of contact because if you go off with a third-party GSM card, it adds one more layer of complexity to the whole reseller headache."
But GSM data is "a great way to go", according to Felix Wong of Advanced Portable Technologies, which distributes data related products for Ericsson, Nokia, and Motorola.
Both network coverage and the smarts built into mobile digital networks are making it a winner, he claims.
An example of the side benefits built into GSM is Short Message Service (SMS), a feature of GSM that allows short e-mail messages to appear on GSM phone displays free of charge.
For a mobile corporate workforce, SMS raises rich possibilities, Wong said.
An example would be the one-to-many broadcasting to mobile salespeople of corporate house- keeping messages, such as sales meeting time changes.
In Europe, some users are even breaking large files into smaller chunks to send them via SMS for reassembly at the receiving end.
Another attraction for GSM data users are cost savings made possible because digital connections don't require the modem handshaking delays imposed by analog circuits.
Available now, although few people realise it, are GSM "soft modems", that is, software implementations of data cards. They are only half the price of data cards although not yet as reliable, Wong said.
At the other end of the line, plugging remote users into the corporate server is becoming easier and simpler thanks to the emergence of new products like integrated multi-modem cards.
The adapter cards should expand the lower end of the remote access market by providing simpler, more economic ways of delivering dial-up remote access solutions.
Among the offerings available are the RAStel card from Australian company Moreton Bay Ventures and rival wares from US companies NetAccess and Multi Tech.
Essentially, they piggyback on the expanding suite of remote access tools offered by server operating systems, particularly Windows NT, which is folding in features once the province of dedicated communications devices.
"One of the biggest costs in the remote access market from a channel perspective has been maintenance," said Moreton Bay Ventures MD Bob Waldie.
"Maintenance has been a cost centre, not a revenue centre. If that can be folded back inside NT so you just have to learn the NT way instead of having to worry about a proprietary network black box, then from a reseller perspective, things become easier to manage."
RAStel, which works with all the major Unix flavours as well as Windows NT and Windows 95, puts up to eight modem ports on a single card with a reseller price of $1845 (ex tax).
It supports a range of third-party comms software including Symantec's PC Anywhere, Datastorm's ProComm Plus and Delrina's WinCommPRO.
"This is more than just about remote data access," said Waldie. "We are starting to see small businesses use these as fax servers so they can fax out to all their customers or use it for faxback services." Among the fax software packages RAStel supports are WinFax Pro, Zetafax and Cheyenne's FAXserve.
Some companies are also reserving one channel on the board as their corporate network dialup link to their ISP, Waldie said.