Infrared isn't just glowing in the dark

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, June 1996

What do you get when you cross a TV remote control with a personal computer?

How about wireless solutions that make mobile computing a lot more convenient. And when you shrink the computer to the size of a wallet, you get the future of digital commerce.

Maybe when you think of wireless connection, you think of radio?sending data by something like a cell-phone connection, like with GDT Softworks?s InfoWave package. That?s great for sending information over long distances, but for zapping data across a desk or an office, something more akin to your TV?s remote. There?s been small-scale personal wireless for a while?Logitech has marketed a wireless mouse for several years, for example... there are also wireless keyboards, for people who don?t like cables on the desktop.

But now, there?s a new standard for infrared connections, sponsored by IrDA, the InfraRed Data Association. This makes it possible for manufacturers to add infrared ports, with some assurance that computers and peripherals from different companies will be able to communicate.

As a result, for example, the new Leo portable Pentium that I reviewed, came with an infrared port on the back?a dark rectangular window, about 2 cm long by 0.5 cm wide. Similar ports are on an estimated 32% of all portable computers sold in the last year.

But what can it communicate with?

An increasing number of new laser printers, particularly models aimed at large offices, rather than home users, are sporting IrDA-compatible ports. With these models, it?s possible to take your portable into an office, simply point it at the printer, and print... no fussing with cables, no risking unhooking the network and angering half the logged-in users when you abort their printouts.

Hewlett-Packard is one of the main forces behind IrDA... they?ve added infrared support to much of their printer line. They?re also selling the NetBeamIR-an infrared network access point. This could be quite convenient for many mobile computer users who need to drop in at the office, and quickly connect into the network. Again, no more fussing with cables?it could pay for itself replacing PC-Card ethernet  adapters, and pricy docking stations for multiple users.

Infrared and radio wireless connections are also beginning to coexist. AST and Nokia showed off a system at January?s PacRim Comdex, to run on the recently announced Personal Communications System (PCS). The infrared port on a portable from AST or other manufacturer, can be used to connect to Nokia?s  2190 PCS digital phone, for e-mail, fax, Internet access?all with no modem at all.

The minimal power requirements of infrared, compared to PC Cards, is a real boon to hand-held devices. Suddenly, these can become much easier to connect?to desktop computers, to printers, to networks, and even to the Internet.

And infrared wireless data exchange is vital to futuristic experiments with digital wallets... expect, sometime in the near future, to point and click these hand-held computers, to fill them with digital cash... then point them at a cash-register?s IR port, to transfer money from the wallet to the vendor, and pay your grocery or restaurant bill. Point your wallet at your child?s to transfer his or her weekly allowance.

Right now, there?s a big gap?the hardware is becoming increasingly standardized, but, like PC Cards a couple of years ago, there?s no operating system-level software support. But if you?re using Windows 95, you can add IrDA support with Service Pack 1 (full version), from Microsoft. And I?d expect it to be built into the next generation of operating systems, like the upcoming Merlin version of IBM?s OS/2, or Apple?s Copland.

Right now, I?m typing this article on a portable computer... but with the computer on my lap, I?m tangled in a mess of cables?a power cable into the wall, a phone cable from my PC Card modem, a parallel cable to my ZIP drive and printer. It?s convenient, but I?d sure feel freer without all those cables.

Infrared won?t let me get rid of them all?I?ll need longer lasting batteries for that. But as this standard becomes more established, I?m hoping that the little, rectangular port on the back of the computer will allow me more computing freedom, sometime soon. I?m even prepared to use it to zap my son Joey?s weekly allowance into his digital wallet.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan