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Your Bagel Toaster is Now Online!
by Mark Sedenquist

When Rodger Lea, Vice-President U.S. Research Laboratories for Sony Electronics was asked to define his five-year strategic research and development plan for Sony, he said simply, "All devices will connect to the Internet." Rodger was part of a panel of high-level technological gurus representing the R&D labs of Philips, Samsung, Thomson, Sony and Panasonic at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Rodger's comments effectively paraphrased the central theme at this year's CES convention. Virtually every company's display or literature that I looked at over the course of this five-day event includes some direct or indirect reference to "broadband content delivery," usually via the Internet. This hardly suggests that we will be using electric toasters to read e-mail, but it does tend to support the notion that at some point in the near future an automatic toaster will "automatically" send a status report on the required maintenance requirement for a bagel slicing mechanism to the in-house shopping acquisition software, which in turn, will provide an alert to our PDA when we approach the appropriate replacement item at the local grocery store.

It isn't just the devices that are converging, although there are plenty of examples of new handheld gadgets that offer organizational tools, cellular phones, cameras, recording and playback devices and a host of gaming and other communication services in smaller and smaller configurations, many formerly distinct business forms are joining forces. Dr. Heemin Kwon, a R&D executive with Samsung shared his observations about the Korean construction trade in regards to the high degree of electronic devices that are now considered a part of normal construction standards. Without question there will be similar pairings of unlikely business partners as corporate leaders seek to exploit new revenue streams created by Internet commerce. There were a lot of cool new gadgets unveiled at this year's show, and I will pass on some of those in the days and weeks to come.

But first, the primary purpose of this column is to find the means for Dashboarders to connect to the Internet anywhere, anytime at a reasonable cost. Number one on my wish list would be finding a method to connect to this "broadband Internet" and/or surf the Web without spending a fortune in a non-urban location. Dashboarders have been looking forward to the rollout of affordable two-way satellite service for some time. In the last few weeks, both the Hughes DirecPC and Dish Network's StarBand have launched two-way services. Although there have been recent postings on the Road Wirer Wireless Forum from Dashboarders about the difficulties of mounting and using the required satellite dish receivers on mobile vehicles, there is nothing quite like seeing them in person. I spoke with Starband CEO Zur Feldman and Paul Gaske, Executive Vice President at Hughes Network Systems, about the challenges of having non-technical consumers positioning these satellite receivers. The relative size of these receivers, (over three feet in diameter) and the very narrow bandwidth required by the two-way service makes it nearly impossible for most non-technically gifted Dashboarders to correctly align the devices every time. An engineer confided that the motion required to do nothing more than tighten a nut on the mounting bracket can often result in missing the "sweet spot" on the signal. Zur Feldman assured me that he is very aware of the interest of mobile customers and StarBand is working to develop a "push-button" device that will automatically position the receiver in much the same way that TV satellite receivers now employ. Such a tracking device could be ready by the end of year.

For the last four months, I have been tracking the source of a rumor about the development of a "phased-array" satellite receiver dish that would enable true two-way Internet connectivity for Dashboarders. Phased-array satellite technology has been a staple of military products for years and would be highly desirable for Dashboarders because it would allow the use of a much smaller receiver that could be installed and positioned on an RV or other vehicle. Dr. H.H. Chung is the President and CEO of SatCom Electronics, in Poway, California, and his firm is developing such a dish. Although the two-way product will probably not be ready for prime time until mid 2002, I looked at two satellite DBS-TV products that can be considered forerunners of the eventual two-way satellite system. The MDBS-AA 2000 is a low profile, phased-array, nearly flat satellite antenna system that employs a multi-axis positioning platform that automatically seeks and locks the antenna at the proper orientation. They have been selling a mobile version (everything required fits in an included suitcase bag) of this receiver for three years: the PassPort Mini-Plus MP-2000-PKG. The costs seem to be comparable to both Dish Network and DirecTV, but the much smaller footprint of the receiver makes this product look like a winner to the Road Wirer. They also sell a Digital Satellite positioning device that was developed for non-technical consumer use to aid in the positioning the receiver.

Companies are continuing to build products that will only work when broadband networks are in place, and many of the network providers are already proclaiming that "now have a broadband solution for everyone" (Hughes Network). Clearly there is much yet to be done, but this year's CES has certainly whetted my appetite for whatever this new millennium may bring!

Mark Sedenquist
Las Vegas, Nevada
January 8, 2001