For some professors, it’s a world without wires — or at least a campus without them.
Faculty in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education recently ended a pilot program in which faculty used wireless email and other applications for popular handheld computers called Personal Digital Assistants. The program was successful enough that its director, William Doering, would like to see it extended to the rest of the campus.
“One of our faculty members in our teacher education programs job was of the nature that she had to be at a lot of different sites, so she spent most of her time on the road,” Doering said. “The only way she was communicating was by people leaving her voicemail, which was just an answering machine in her office. I thought this would be a perfect candidate to see if this technology would work.”
Robert Koegel, a professor in the Gevirtz School who works with the Autism Research Center, said the technology is helpful when he is traveling.
“I’ll be needing to keep in communication with people by e-mail, so when I’m at the airport waiting for a connection and I know there’s an urgent e-mail I need, I can access it quickly with the wireless,” he said.
The technology is still confined to the Gevirtz School and not available to the rest of the campus, Communication Services Associate Director Paul Valenzuela said.
“It’s not anything campus oriented and not even anything Communication Services would do,” he said. “It’s a department initiative.”
Doering would like to change that.
“The software’s pretty pricey for an organization like ours to purchase, so I want to get the campus involved,” he said. “It’s the perfect application for the campus to use in a lot of research environments.”
Jeff Chambers, a manager at the help desk, was responsible for setting up most of the wireless applications.
“Having the applications is probably the most important thing,” he said. “Because it’s a computer, it has its own Internet address just like something at ResNet would.”
Doering and Chambers used a developer’s kit produced by Orsus Solutions to build the applications.
“When they demonstrated the product, the first thing I said was they’re obviously faking it or there’s something they’re not showing us; it doesn’t work; it’s not this easy,” Doering said. “Later they came up here to Santa Barbara and showed me the product, and I was really impressed.
So far, the applications are mostly used for e-mail, Chambers said.
“It’s great for checking e-mail, but not so great for images or downloading,” he said. “You can do it, but you’re going to be connected for a while.”
In terms of speed, wireless connections will not replace physical cable connections any time soon, Chambers said.
“At this point it’s very slow,” he said. “Picture yourself being on the Internet in the year 1993 where you would have e-mails with no text. It’s equivalent to maybe a 14.4k modem you spent $300 on.”
In order to deal with the speed problem, many major websites have developed special pages for wireless connections.
“If you try to use the regular site, it’s extremely unwieldy, very very slow and extremely frustrating,” said Koegel. “Then you find out they have a wireless connection; you go to that and it’s faster. It doesn’t do everything the main site does, but it does most things.”
The wireless devices are also limited by geography.
“Think of the service area as being major cities where you would normally get digital wireless service,” said Chambers. “The disadvantages are just like cell phones. Because it’s all radio frequencies, if you’re in an elevator shaft there’s no signal. If you’re out of a service area, like on top of Yosemite, you’re not going to get a signal.”
Security is also presenting a problem, Koegel said.
“All of our sites are extremely secure; it’s very hard to do that with the wireless. You have to put in a lot of extra stuff and when they put that in there, it slows the connection down,” he said. “Certain sites don’t work at all. The little palm pilot can’t figure out if it’s a hacker trying to get in or me accessing the site while in a taxi.”
Wireless devices are still a niche market.
“I think that if I weren’t traveling so much, it would be just like a little toy, maybe a backup for when the desktop connection goes down,” said Koegel. “But for traveling, it’s going to get tot he point where you can’t do without them.”