PERHAPS YOU'VE HEARD of DotComGuy, the Dallas man who shut himself in his house and says he won't leave for a year. Instead he's living

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A geek's wireless week

Disconnecting herself from her PC, our tech writer tries to PalmPilot herself through a typical workweek.

PERHAPS YOU'VE HEARD of DotComGuy, the Dallas man who shut himself in his house and says he won't leave for a year. Instead he's living life strictly via Net. He's shopping, he's chatting, he's entertaining virtual guests, he's shopping, he's paying the bills, he's . . . shopping.

DotComGuy.

What a dork.

Not only is this a whorish stunt (it's all about sponsorships), but it's been done—back in 1996-97, when you didn't have Kozmo and HomeGrocer (oh, wait, we had HomeGrocer — there goes the grocery store!) and whatnot. When it was TOUGH. The real challenge now is to not be isolated—to lead a full 21st-century life—without chaining yourself to the computer.

I do so love a challenge.

Because the world is becoming more mobile, because the Internet is intrinsic to my life and yet a drain on it, and because I wanted an excuse to play with cool toys, I vowed to go an entire week handling my Net life without going near my desk—going, in other words, online without wires. Call me "GotSunGirl."

And I expect a lot of my Net connection. I handle my faxes and voicemail online. I haven't seen the inside of a bank for months. Hell, I haven't seen certain editors for months; I work outside the office and only wander in occasionally. I instant-message, not phone; I read 15 papers a day but rarely touch newsprint.

DotComGuy has it easy.

AMERICANS ARE GETTING more and more of their data wirelessly, through phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants), and messaging devices. My first task was to figure out what toys—um, tools—would do the job.

My current notebook weighs six pounds, and carrying it makes one of my shoulders tilt permanently lower than the other. I liked the idea of laying my burden down, but by the time I'd collected my wireless devices I'd succeeded only in distributing the load more evenly: Palm VII on the left, HP Jornada 545 on the right, Qualcomm dual-band cell phone also on the right, extra batteries on the left. I wanted more gear, like the Blackberry two-way messenger, but I ran out of pockets.

Why two PDAs? Frankly, I dithered on the final choice, not unlike the PC-vs.-Mac debate most novices wade through. The Palm—so cute! So many applications and games! And the VII comes Net-ready; flip the antenna and go wild. But then there's the Windows CE-running Jornada—the color screen! The sturdy case! Microsoft Word, engine of my existence! Besides, I felt so cool walking down the street with two capable computers on my person. I really need to get out more.

My phone didn't pull PDA duty. It could have, though. Japan's going online via mobile phones, not PCs or PDAs—60 million folk (25,000 more each day) reach the Net through "I-mode" handsets that transmit music, photos, and mail along with voice. Cute, but not available or appropriate; besides, mobile coverage in Seattle is crappy even for voice calls, which needn't be as clear as data connections. Why try?

Other than Net add-ons, I didn't put much on the machines. The Palm gained an eFax reader and Xdrive app that handle faxes and file transfers respectively; the ThinAir client let me monitor three e-mailboxes. (The Jornada includes a CE mutation of Outlook.) I also picked up a Palm Personal Keyboard for "emergencies" (say, hand cramps) and should have gotten one for the Jornada.

I dismissed some gear as needless. I wasn't planning a hike, so I skipped the GPS devices. I'm not looking for a new sweetie, so I didn't clip on a match-making LoveGety or Alterego. The Jornada can play MP3s, but I have a stereo, so music playback was superfluous—or so I thought.

One of the problems of new technology is that folks try to make it fill the same niche as previous technologies. I'm no exception—and I may have been wrong. But thus equipped I went forth, atilt no more but feeling strangely bereft, not to mention radioactive.

THERE'S A WEALTH of wireless Webbish services, offering everything from traffic reports to news to gaming. Many of the services I sought are familiar: Travelocity, MapQuest, ESPN, MovieFone, the Wall Street Journal. But they're not the same. Sites streamline for wireless access, since retrofitting less popular pages isn't cost-efficient and since wireless modems are still slow and flaky. The result is Sites Lite—some good (Slashdot, Amazon) and some not (Salon). I loved the idea of waking up in the night and asking Jeeves what it meant if I dreamed about giant wheels of cheese, but wireless Jeeves is a lot dumber than the original.

Some sites weren't available to "my kind." By choosing PDAs for access and not an AT&T or Sprint data-friendly phone, for instance, I deprived myself of the company of allrecipes.com, a terrific site that begs to go grocery shopping with me. Such data-apartheid is like the mid-'90s IE-vs.-Netscape browser wars, where designers chose a platform and demanded that visitors use only that browser "for best results." Feh.

Not everything I saw was repurposed Webbery. How about a wireless-only service that recommends restaurants, shops, and theaters, and includes directions? That's Vindigo, one of my fashion-victim friend's favorite apps. Cool for New York, but it won't help you here; there's no Seattle version available. Go West, young service, go West!

OF COURSE THERE'S more to Net life than surfing; I could live Webless, but e-mail is essential. Would a wireless connection let me rejoin the world or cut me off from my e-mail roots?

I get 300-500 e-mails per day; I figure I could read a tenth of those on tiny, battery-hungry screens before I went blind or mad. I chose three key mailboxes to monitor, letting my other ones slide—not because I didn't care, but because the others handle my newsletter and mailing-list traffic (that is, most of the mail). For a week, I kept on top of events—barely—without my usual feeds, getting news through those abridged Web sites (as well as the newspapers). Beyond one week? It would have killed me.

On the other hand, wireless access to important messages was nice—stress relief, and not just for me. I like to take my work now and then to a coffee shop that dislikes cell phones. Keeping an eye but not an ear on the office was easy and unobtrusive—and for once my editor didn't have to wonder if I was dodging him on deadline day. And I felt so industrious! Delayed at the airport? Check e-mail! Cooling my heels in a waiting room? Check e-mail! Want dinner with friends, but still have business? Check . . . oops.

The wireless lifestyle was fun for me, but not for onlookers. My friends, initially amused, began to loathe my jones for instant data. I hit a low at one dinner when every 10 minutes I sent more mail about a meeting I'd scheduled for the next day. I pissed off my friends; they told me so.

Fine. I have lots of new friends: other Palm owners, eager to beam and be beamed—to share data and apps. (I'm not saying that Jornada owners aren't friendly; they're just hard to find. In theory, the Jornada can exchange contact-type data with Palms, but my VII was having none of that.) I had a true Palm bonding moment when a woman asked me where to find the nearest Starbucks—instead of trying to explain, I beamed the 'Bucks auto-finder to her boyfriend's Palm clone. Geek out!

BY DAY SEVEN I was enjoying my toys but ready to return to Laptop Land—and when Judge Jackson's final ruling turned up unexpectedly, I gave myself a gold star for effort and knocked off the week a few hours early. I knew the unmonitored mailbox would be swelling rapidly; also, the allure of being able to maybe pull down the legal documents from the espresso bar was more than offset by the necessity to get them immediately and to not fuss with coffee when all hell was breaking loose.

I was also feeling cramped—not just onscreen, but in memory. We're accustomed to plentiful, cheap data storage, but storage on mobile devices is limited. I used Xdrive.com to handle my overflow, but still, the more I depended on my PDAs, the more stuff I needed on them, and the more juggling I had to do. How . . . retro.

Worse, I missed some of the stuff I didn't "need." MP3s? The Jornada plays them, but I couldn't just slap in a CD and rip some fresh tunes. I have a stereo; but I wanted my MP3 and RealAudio. The mark of the Net's pervasiveness is not the practical tasks it lets us do, but the quality of life it lets us take for granted. Got that, DotComGuy?

Information at my fingertips? Sure, it's available, the same way the currently all-inclusive, overdeveloped, very nearly ubiquitous Web was available in 1996: in utero. I was at the last revolution and expect this one to go quickly but differently—the Palm platform is the sexy Netscape of the wireless world, but CE doesn't come from the same all-powerful Microsoft that brought us Internet Explorer. I suspect that doing this experiment in 12 months I'd still want to have both PDAs; that's encouraging. And I don't think there's any going back for me; I can't manage all my e-mail with a PDA, but I can't manage some of it without.

It's no trick to be DotComGuy in the year 2000. Lots of us worked hard to make it so, though I don't think we intended this nonsense as the result. The state of the wireless world is much like the early days of the Web, and that's really refreshing, but I'm not willing to give up my current level of Web dependence. I want it all and I want it now, and for now I'll have to tilt my shoulders to get it.

 
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