Connect the Computers

You think we’re making progress.  Each year’s technology is better than the last.  Especially in communications.  Aren’t we capable of near-instant communications with each other, almost anywhere on the planet?  Well, sometimes.  Let me highlight one place we’re going backwards – transferring data.

A few years ago, many of us had Palm handheld computers.  One Palm feature was Infrared.  You could beam your contact info, data files, even an entire program, to another Palm handheld.  I can remember attending a monthly meeting where the agenda was beamed to everyone with a Palm, which was most of us.  Then handhelds running other operating systems came along, and also had Infrared ports.  You couldn’t beam programs to handhelds with a different OS, but some data types traveled well among devices.  Many of us went from Palms to Pocket PCs, but we could still beam data between handhelds.  So far, so good.

Bluetooth had a rocky beginning.  Bluetooth was a major advancement, but it took awhile to gain traction.  By this time, PDAs were giving way to the early Smartphones.  The carriers controlled the features, and for some reason, the carriers fought Bluetooth.  Even devices that had Bluetooth were often lacking profiles to do obvious chores like transferring files (a Bluetooth Profile is an instruction set to accomplish a specific task, like connecting a headset or a Bluetooth keyboard and transferring the appropriate data.  Not having the needed profile is like not having a printer driver – nothing happens!).  Finally, common Bluetooth profiles began appearing in many handhelds.  We used Bluetooth to send contacts, transfer files, listen to music, use our phones as wireless modems, and other tasks.  The monthly meeting I mentioned earlier now distributed the meeting agenda to the attendees via Bluetooth.  So far, we had progress, but then…

Manufacturers started eliminating Infrared from Smartphones.  It didn’t make sense – still doesn’t – because the savings amount to pennies per device.  It was simple to beam contact info or even a file to someone you were talking with.  If they didn’t understand how, you could show them how easy it was.  This ease and functionality is needed today – 95% of the people with Smartphones have no idea how to send data to another device!  Bring back the IR port!

I’m not sure if the Bluetooth stack was changed, profiles were eliminated or changed…what happened?  There are many available Bluetooth profiles, but the average device has only a few.  Most devices today can’t use an OS function to send or receive Bluetooth files with someone nearby.  You must e-mail them, so you need an active data connection, and you can usually include a file as an attachment.  Which seems rather silly.  I want to send you a file, you’re three feet away, we can touch each other.  But I can’t send you that file direct, I must e-mail you, which may involve e-mail servers thousands of miles away.

I suspect any future solution may involve Wi-Fi, which isn’t as good as Bluetooth for file transfers.  One reason Bluetooth is better is security.  Most Bluetooth devices have a maximum range of 30-35 feet.  You can usually see who is within that limited range.  Wi-Fi travels much farther, and you may be sending files to someone you’re not even aware of!  I own a small device (about the size of a cigarette lighter) called AirStash (http://www.airstash.com/) that beams the contents of a SD card over Wi-Fi.  It’s great for getting files into and out of Apple iOS devices.  The documentation says it creates a PAN (Personal Area Network) with a range up to 160 feet line-of-sight.  The device is much weaker than a router, probably not as powerful as Smartphones, tablets, or notebook computers, so can you imagine sending files over Wi-Fi with more powerful devices?  How many of my files the neighbors would have is anyone’s guess.  Security?  Many people don’t understand how to set up a secure Wi-Fi network, and others may ignore secure protocols if they are transferring files on a peer-to-peer network, something they expect to take less than a minute.

Mobile devices run on batteries, and it takes less power to send a file via Bluetooth than Wi-Fi.  Compounding that, if you plan to use Wi-Fi, you’ll likely leave Wi-Fi turned on, which really drains your battery.

There is a solution.  If we complain, and complain enough, the missing functionality may be restored in the next generation of devices.  Next time you’re device shopping, complain about the missing features.  Tell the salesperson you aren’t buying today because the devices lack an important feature.  Read an online review?  Ask if the device can transfer contacts or files via Bluetooth, and if it can’t, nicely point out the device is crippled at the starting gate.  Manufacturers do read these online reviews, they hate to read about shortcomings, and at least some may decide to correct their omission.  You don’t think so?  Apple changed the function of a button on the iPad.  There were many complaints, and the next OS revision offered users a choice for that button.

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About pdacomputing

Small business owner in Pittsburgh, PA. I've used different mobile platforms over the years; currently using 2 very different platforms.
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