At Microsoft's first annual Embedded Windows Development Conference, attendees tried out 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi, the rapidly emerging standard for wireless Ethernet access. How'd they like it?

I spent much of last week at Microsoft's first annual Embedded Windows Development Conference (which replaced the former Windows CE DevCon). This week, I'll focus on one technology that was actually used at the show: 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi, the rapidly emerging standard for wireless Ethernet access. I've already written some news from the show. Look for a special report next week about Microsoft's evolving embedded and mobile technology.

Microsoft partnered with Symbol Technologies to provide most attendees—more than 1000—with either a Symbol PPT2700 wireless-enabled Pocket PC or a wireless PC Card Type 1 to be used in a conventional notebook PC or Windows CE device. Attendees had snapped up all the Pocket PCs by the time I registered, so I tried the PC Card. Alas, my NEC MobilePro 770 lacks a built-in driver for this card type. Although Symbol offers a compatible one at their Web site's downloads section, I wasn't able to install it on my device.

Why? My difficulties with loading the PC card point up a problem that Windows CE and Palm OS share. To download software to these particular Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), you must first load the software, including drivers, on a PC. Then, when you synchronize your PDA using Microsoft's ActiveSync or Palm's HotSync, the PDA receives the software. The process works fine—if you have a PC handy—but at the conference, I didn't. At COMDEX last fall, Kodak worked around this problem when they loaned PalmPix cameras to attendees. The firm provided at their booth a notebook PC and synchronization cradle to set up the PalmPix cameras; I borrowed one to use with my Palm VII and enjoyed it. Symbol, however, didn't provide a similar service at Embedded DevCon. Eventually I returned the PC card and found that a PPT2700 was available.

The PPT2700 measures 7" x 3.6" x 1" and weighs 10.3 ounces. It's big for a palmtop, but the weight buys a built-in barcode scanner and a concealed PC card slot (in this case, used by a wireless Ethernet card). The sturdy device, intended for industrial use, can survive a 4-foot drop onto a concrete floor without serious damage. It runs Microsoft's Windows CE 3.0. The conference's wireless LAN provided Internet access, conference schedule, and other information, all through the local server.

All the PPT2700's features worked, but not very well. The wireless Ethernet cards and access points are designed to provide full 11Mbps Ethernet data rates. Numerous attendees complained, however, that access to the Internet fell far below broadband speed, perhaps because of the gateway or because about 1000 people sought access all at once.

In addition, attendees couldn't access all the content on the local server, and the Pocket PC's tiny display surface discouraged Web browsing. One frustrated attendee called the device "useless." I disagree, but the experience reinforced my opinion that Web content should be optimized for Pocket PCs and other small-screen devices.

Navigating with the PPT2700 reminded me of using the Compaq iPaq and Sierra Wireless AirCard 300, which runs at a blistering 19,200Kbps. I found myself scrolling constantly on the iPaq, which slowed my use of it so much that I replaced it with a Palm VIIx. The new PDA, despite running at only 9600Kbps, includes optimized display content. Thus it requires much less excess screen tapping—I rarely use the scroll bars. Although it runs at 11Mbps, the PPT2700's speed of use didn't impress me.

Yet I'll not soon forget the sight of conference attendees using their PDAs and notebook PCs to get live, real-time access to the Web, email, and the like. As the technology matures and optimal content grows, we'll see better and more valuable wireless access.

In addition, one small note of concern—a team of computer scientists at Berkeley question 802.11b's privacy. They point out that radio signals are inherently insecure. Years ago, the US Air Force trained me in radio maintenance, and only unclassified information could be transmitted "in the clear" over radio frequencies. Classified information required encryption, and the most secure information was never transmitted by radio. These messages traveled only over hard-wired connections equipped with special wiretap protections. Protect your sensitive corporate information—don't assume that 802.11b will do it for you!