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The laptop has played a significant part in the explosion of interest in Wi-Fi hotspots, writes Rob Bamforth, of Bloor Research. Busy executives can squeeze a few extra cycles of connected productivity as they sit around airports and hotel lobbies or stop for a coffee break between meetings. That's the plan - right?

Well, maybe. But there's a wider untapped audience who might need high bandwidth mobile connectivity. Some see this as a catalyst for increasing the number of laptop sales. Yes, but to a point. Laptops still require you to sit down, and until future concepts become reality they'll have to be booted up and shut down like any PC. Great if you're nomadic and have time and need to set up camp, but not so easy for an ad hoc stand'n'surf.

That's something you might want to do in a wireless workplace as well as a public hotspot.

Especially if you add voice to wireless data - voice over Wi-Fi.

Palm has recently announced an agreement with VLI, who will provide their Gphone voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) application for the Palm personal digital assistant (PDA). This will allow users of Palm's Wi-Fi enabled Tungsten C to make high quality voice communications over a wireless data network.

Gphone for Palm is scheduled to be available in June. VLI's software is compliant with session initiation protocol (SIP). This means that Gphone users can connect to online directory services and call regular phones over the switched public telephone network, in addition to SIP compatible IP devices, like personal computers and Internet phones.

VoIP has grown pretty fast. From a standing start five years ago, there are now over 3.5 million VoIP phones in the US. VoIP over Wi-Fi makes the proposition more interesting.

But wait. Surely VoIP in wireless hotspots is a jump back in time to the ill-fated Rabbit mobile telecoms system once deployed in the UK? And, er, what about GSM mobile phones?

VoIP in a public hotspot is unlikely to be the killer app for PDAs. But there are many vertical market applications where a laptop is too cumbersome or creates a barrier between professional and client - say between a doctor and a patient, and a smartphone just isn't smart enough. To add a free voice channel to a network of wireless data devices around a factory, hospital or shop could be quite compelling. Not having to wield a separate phone might free a hand too.

Fast wireless networks introduces another idea. Remote speech recognition. Mobile telephony may be entering it's third generation, but this is more Next Generation - the Star Trek model "computer, patch me through to someone in engineering, and download me a copy of the warp core schematics."

Not today, but maybe very soon - one company already supplies a wireless VoIP speech recognition application for hospitals.

In the meantime when you loiter in range of a public hotspot, and quickly browse data on your handheld device, maybe you could call the office without bringing another device to hand? Especially if there's already a coffee in that hand. © IT-Analysis.com

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