Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Look, Ma... no wires! Using infrared to get connected

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #335  March 26, 1996 High Tech Office  column

    So you've got your portable computer, and you like the newfound freedom it gives you. Now you can take it on the plane to that out-of-town sales meeting, but more often, you take it to the meeting down the hall, or upstairs.

    But once you get there, what do you do if you need to do something as seemingly simple as print out a document?

    Perhaps you walk over to the computer on somebody's desk, unplug the printer cable, plug it into your computer's printer port, and print. Workable but awkward. But what if the desktop computer is printing through the network?

    Well, maybe you've got a PC Card Ethernet connector, but even then, connecting into the network outside your own office is not necessarily a trivial matter. (Don't try simply pulling off the networking cable from that desktop computer and sticking it onto your notebook--not unless you're prepared to defend yourself from a raging network manager!)

    Wireless phones are commonplace, so pretty soon, wireless computer connections will be too. Last year, 32 per cent of the portable computers sold included infrared ports and it's estimated that by next year, every portable computer sold will include one, allowing portable users a way for their computers to communicate without the cables.

    Of course, it takes two to communicate. You'll want to make sure that the next laser printer your office buys also has an infrared port to allow portable users to simply stand a couple of feet away, point the laptop towards the printer, and print. In fact, an increasing number of printer models are already sporting infrared connections.

    An industry association, the Infrared Data Association (IrDA), is pushing for increased acceptance of this technology. Hewlett-Packard, for example, is including infrared in its portable computer models, and in several of its newest printer models. As well, the company is selling the NetBeamIR--an infrared network access point. If you point an infrared-capable portable computer at one of these, it can be connected into the network, and even use the network for high-speed Internet access.

    Infrared use isn't widespread yet, but it's a technology with lots of growth potential. It's an 'enabling' technology that permits lots of other changes to take place. Perhaps you've seen one of those futuristic videos where the hero pays for things by pointing his wallet at the cash register, transferring electronic cash at the same time? We're nearly there. Combine the digital cash cards being tested by financial institutions such as VanCity Savings Credit Union with infrared, and you've pretty much got this futuristic scenario.

    In the shorter term, however, you can look for the infrared communication system that was previewed at January's PacRim Comdex show by AST Canada and Nokia Products Ltd.

    Their wireless communications system, expected to be released later this year, will run on the Personal Communications Service (PCS) recently announced by Industry Canada. The IrDA infrared port on AST Ascentia and other recent laptop models could be used to communicate through Nokia's 2190 digital PCS phone, thus allowing e-mail, fax, and complete Internet access with no modem in the computer. Such technology makes it usable by tiny handheld computers, which have been crippled by the high power demands of fast PC Card modems.

    And while no operating system currently on the shelves includes built-in IrDA support, the Microsoft's recently released Service Pack of updates and fixes for Windows 95 adds infrared support for that system. This is a sign that such support may be standard in the next generation of software.

    While working with a portable computer provides a sense of freedom, I'm still burdened down by too many wires. Right now, I've got the power cable plugged into the wall, and the phone cable connecting my PC Card modem. I could add a printer cable, or a cable to my Iomega ZIP drive. (It lets me use very handy 100-meg removable disks--but at the cost of one more cable.)

    What I want from my next portable computer is better battery life, and infrared connections to everything else.

    The technology is here today and its benefits are obvious. It should become increasingly available--look for it in your future portable computer, printer, and other business purchases.

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