NOTE: This article is an archived copy for portfolio purposes only, and may refer to obsolete products or technologies. Old articles are not maintained for continued relevance and accuracy.
March 30, 1998

Novatel Minstrel

Every so often, a product comes along that has the potential to change the way we work. Although Novatel Wireless' Minstrel Wireless IP Modem isn't earthshaking on its own, when used in conjunction with a 3Com PalmPilot Professional or IBM WorkPad handheld computer and some Internet-based applications, it's a dazzler. It allows truly mobile, wireless, pen-based access to standards-driven applications. But there are two catches: You must work in an area served by cellular digital packet data (CDPD) and your corporate applications must be Web-enabled.

Using the Minstrel, a PalmPilot Professional, and a minimal Web browser, I was able to fully access Web-enabled applications on my company network from a variety of different locations around the San Francisco Bay area. I looked up and edited information stored in my corporate contact database, entered work orders into my corporate job-tracking system, and sent e-mail to my coworkers and peers. I did so without having to tote a bulky and heavy laptop and without having to use a customer's phone line or code custom applications for a proprietary handheld platform.

The Minstrel is not the first offering to try for the holy grail of fast access and flexibility. RAM Mobile Data (now known as BellSouth Mobile Data) has long offered wireless modems that are integrated into handheld systems. However, CDPD is an ANSI standard that has support from a number of vendors, whereas RAM has always been a proprietary, value-added offering.

Critical CDPD coverage

The Minstrel elevates pen-based computers such as the PalmPilot from a glorified contact manager to a full-fledged mobile computing tool. Formerly, mobile knowledge workers had to rely on land-line modems to access corporate applications via a Web browser. The Minstrel lets them do this in wireless mode through the use of CDPD, also known as Wireless IP. As long as you are in a CDPD-aware cell, you can access your corporate applications within just a few seconds.

The drawback is that CDPD coverage is somewhat restricted. Only about 70 percent of the top 100 metropolitan areas have a greater-than-50 percent coverage. For example, although I was able to log in and access my corporate applications from the San Francisco International Airport, a golf course in Foster City, a bar in Burlingame, and an office park in San Mateo, I was unable to do so from a beach in nearby Half Moon Bay. All of these locations are in San Mateo County, Calif., which boasts one of the highest coverage areas of any county in the nation.

But many metropolitan areas still completely lack CDPD coverage. For example, all of Los Angeles is dark, although several surrounding areas provide good coverage. Outside of the United States, the picture is even bleaker, with only a few cities in Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and Indonesia offering any form of CDPD service at all.

Novatel Wireless officials say the unit can achieve throughput as fast as 19.2Kbps, but the best I was able to achieve was 9600 baud, though this was due to relatively poor reception quality. Signal strength ranged from -80 dbm to -110 dbm, which is very much on the weak end of the scale. To achieve 19.2Kbps connections, I would probably need to double my signal quality to -40 dbm or greater. Still, 9600 is more than workable when accessing HTML-based applications via the Web.

Apps may need modifications

CDPD's native use of IP networking services allows you to access your internal company services using a stock Web browser and e-mail client. Indeed, the Minstrel unit comes bundled with SmartCode Software's HandStamp Pro e-mail client and HandWeb Web browser, as well as Go.Web and Go.Mail by GoAmerica Communications. After installing SmartCode's products onto my PalmPilot Professional, I simply plugged in the modem and logged in to the network, and I was able to download mail and access my corporate Web applications.

Because many of my internal applications are optimized for use with sophisticated, full-featured browsers, I did encounter some difficulties. For example, HandWeb lacks support for mailto, frame, and a few other rudimentary HTML tags. It also failed to work with some advanced forms and failed to recognize HTTP redirect commands. Also, due to PalmPilot's minimal screen real estate, many of the advanced forms and tables were inappropriately displayed .

I dealt with these problems first by replacing the HandWeb client with OKU Kazuho's much more robust shareware Palmscape browser, which supports rich forms and tables. I then added browser-detection routines to the back-end application software by altering a couple of key screens and using <BR> tags in the appropriate places.

The bundled HandStamp Pro e-mail client offers a general POP3/SMTP e-mail client. Actual Software's MultiMail Professional (sold separately) also offers support for IMAP4. Using MultiMail's Internet Mail Access Protocol capabilities, I was able to view messages in remote mail folders and perform other tasks that simply aren't possible with POP-based mailers such as HandStamp Pro.

Another option that you may wish to look at is Unwired Planet's UP.Browser, a beta version is now available for the PalmPilot and Minstrel. UP.Browser is a CDPD-specific, lightweight presentation technology with a language similar to HTML but optimized for use with small-form devices. (The first commercial implementation of UP.Browser to ship was embedded in AT&T's PocketNet CDPD-enabled cellular phone.)

If you have already made an investment in Unwired Planet's technology, this implementation is a vindication of that strategy. If not, then you may want to look at it as a possible application development and deployment strategy, allowing you to build new front-ends to complex back-end systems that are optimized for a small-form presentation environment.

Not-quite-complete solution

One other minor problem: The Minstrel is designed to work with the PalmPilot Professional specifically and does not support the original PalmPilot or the new PalmPilot III. However, Novatel Wireless is developing a modified adapter that will allow the modem to work with the PalmPilot III's slimmer, sleeker design.

Also, the modem itself is bulky and a bit clumsy. It easily doubles the mass of a stand-alone PalmPilot. The cumulative size, however, is a fraction of the space occupied by a laptop computer, allowing you to store both units in a briefcase along with various books and papers.

Further, some sort of synchronization and replication service needs to be implemented that would allow users to work with data even when they cannot get onto the network. Currently, the Minstrel does not support the PalmPilot's HotSynch or ModemSynch technologies, which means that you have to remove the PalmPilot from the Minstrel, place it in its cradle, and synchronize it while you are physically connected.

Novatel Wireless officials said the company is working with 3Com on a solution to let users synchronize local data-stores, such as the embedded contact-management and calendaring software, using the wireless connection. Of course, none of this matters if you are in an area that does not have CDPD coverage, or if you have Windows-based back-end applications that cannot be easily Web enabled.

For this technology to really succeed, we will have to see much better CDPD coverage than what is available now. This is an expensive and time-consuming proposition, as CDPD base stations have to be installed at each and every tower that serves a cell's coverage area.

Until then, this solution remains incomplete for a large number of potential users. Only those fortunate folk who live and work in CDPD-aware turf, and who have corporate Web applications, can realize the vision of true mobile, wireless computing.

The Minstrel Modem, used with a handheld computer and Internet-based applications, successfully provides mobile knowledge workers with on-demand remote access to existing corporate applications.

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Copyright © 2010-2017 Eric A. Hall.
Portions copyright © 1998 InfoWorld Media Group, Inc. Used with permission.