Over the Edge: Randy Mikado: Unplugged!

Tuesday Nov 28th 2000 by Chris Miksanek
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Has wireless technology delivered on its promise? By the way, what was the promise of wireless technology? Found 1980s correspondence reveals original vision.

Illustration by Daniel Guidera

Wireless technology. It's what everyone seems to be talking about. At this year's COMDEX, for instance, attendance at eMobility sessions was second only to attendance at the Riviera's "Crazy Girls" revue.

But is wireless technology pushing a new envelope or licking an old one? It's not new, of course. We've had pagers and cell phones for almost two decades. What is new are wireless applications in IT. But many vendors, buoyed only by the hype of its immense potential, are struggling for a defined position in a still undefined market.

As R&D labs and CIOs alike wrestle with this alleged potential, they are left wondering if wireless technology can ever come to fruition without a clear set of standards. In short, the fundamental question--What good is wireless?--has largely been left unanswered.

Will we be liberated by mobility or be enslaved to battery capacity, cell tower availability, and hemorrhaging security exposures? How can we know? No one has ever defined the promise of wireless technology.

Well, actually, someone has.

Illustration by Daniel Guidera

In 1984, when personal computers and cell phones were in their respective forests primeval, the now defunct Zeta-80 Institute-- a think tank sponsored by Atari, Coleco, and Commodore--studied the potential of wireless technology. While the complete study is unavailable (the original tapes are unreadable on any of today's devices), one interoffice memo thread between researcher Randy Mikado and his project manager, Owen Sidmann, survives. Mikado, widely regarded as the father of wireless applications, outlined his vision of the technology's potential in these memos. Though never realized in his lifetime (tragically, in 1991, he died when a vending machine he was violently shaking fell on him), Mikado's proposals may help you position wireless technology in your enterprise now, nearly 20 years later.

What follows are the memos that passed between the two men during those early days when wireless communication was merely one more agenda item on the think tank's list of brainstorming topics.

March 15, 1984
TO: Owen Sidmann
FROM: Randy Mikado

Owen, I've completed A42210 and G15038, the reports are attached. Let's talk about my next project. As I mentioned at the Christmas Party (by the way, didn't you think the one-legged tap-dancer was a treat) I would like to transition into the medical research group. I have some ideas for developing artificial kidney stones and grafting acne. Did you know there has been a lot of progress in Romania growing appendixes in baboons? That there is incredible opportunity in this area I can say with the same assuredness as I believe "One Day at a Time" will join "I Love Lucy" in perpetual reruns.

March 16, 1984
TO: Randy
FROM: Owen Sidmann

Were you paying attention at Monday's staff meeting? You're working the wireless project. The report's due April 13. By the way, you need to rework your conclusions in the A42210 and G15038 reports when you get a chance. The description of your device that permits you to see through walls six inches thick sounds a lot like a window, and Dick has summarily rejected your proposal for a parachute that opens on impact. Perhaps some type of air cushion or air bag would be more practical.

This is a think tank, Randy. Think! Have a nice weekend. --Owen

March 21, 1984
TO: Owen Sidmann
FROM: Randy Mikado

I was out of the office for the past two days--Joanne had Chicken Pox. I would have liked to see your note sooner, but I had no way to access office information from home or from the doctor's office where we sat waiting for hours. But I did have some time this morning to think about wireless; being detached for two days gave rise to an idea. What if we could leverage cell phone technology and somehow merge it with the technology that permits pagers to display phone numbers. We could have an "information appliance" that could retrieve information from the data center. With the advent of satellite technology pushing bits through the air like so many droplets of acid rain, the potential of such "e-mobility" is beyond imagination. I say that with the same assuredness that I believe "Jaws 3-D" will be bigger than "The Sound of Music."

March 23, 1984
TO: Randy
FROM: Owen Sidmann

E-mobility. I like that. The scarcity of cell towers in urban areas, I suspect, will not be an issue as the devices become more popular. One concern, though--would such a device be useful on a plane where executives spend most of their time away from the office? And what about battery capacity? How useful would a device be if it fails at the least convenient time? The technology sounds promising, but one barrier might be the displacement of an existing access network. In other words, why would someone want wireless if they're already wired for an internal network or external modem access? I think the key is in the applications. Let Nigel's team take over the technology side. I want you to focus on applications. What applications do you envision? Remote database access? Inventory access?

March 27, 1984

TO: Owen Sidmann
FROM: Randy Mikado

Owen, sorry I missed you, here's a draft of H85903.1. It is the first application, remote access, and is very exciting. I say that with the same assuredness that I believe Men at Work will be the next Beatles.

March 27, 1984
TO: Randy
FROM: Owen Sidmann

Randy, if I read your draft correctly, you are proposing a standard to remotely access data on a PC. That does, indeed, sound exciting. Though a lot of people see PCs as home hobby devices, I see a time when their power will rival the mainframe as we know it (though we are talking, perhaps, fifty years down the road) and be integrated into a data center. Unfortunately, I am not nearly as thrilled by your example. You say that people will be able to store music on a PC and access (i.e., listen to) that music from your new wireless appliance? If I am reading that correctly, I direct your attention to a document in our corporate library titled, "the encyclopedia." Such a device already exists. It was invented in 1895 by Guglielmo Marconi and is called "the radio." You'll have to do better than that.

March 27, 1984
TO: Owen Sidmann
FROM: Randy Mikado

I wanted to get something for you to read over the weekend, Owen. I've attached a very rough draft of H85903.2. It describes monitoring system performance and availability remotely via your cell phone. This is a great application of the technology. I say that with the same assuredness that I believe the Beta format will be the standard in home videotape technology.

March 30, 1984
TO: Randy
FROM: Owen Sidmann

I read your document over the weekend at a gas stop on our drive up to Gloucester (rained the whole time). Relying on a cell phone as the portal to your enterprise data is severely limiting in regards to the data you can garner. Plus, it could be downright irresponsible--I've heard of some municipalities discussing laws to prohibit cell phone use in moving vehicles. I mean, think about it. What would be the last thing you'd see while driving your K-car over a guard rail at fifty-five miles per hour? Your life passing before your eyes or the percentage of CPU in use by your server? Stay with it, Randy.

March 31, 1984
TO: Owen Sidmann
FROM: Randy

I see what you mean about the dangers of cell phone use. Perhaps we have pushed the technology as far as it can go. I mean, at six pounds, including the bag and antenna, how much smaller could they get? It's not like people will carry them in their vest pockets. However, I do believe there are some wireless commercial applications. H85903.3 outlines what I call mobility-commerce, or simply, "m-commerce." This is an application with unlimited potential. I say that with the same assuredness that I believe Tim Kazurinsky will be the next Lenny Bruce.

April 1, 1984
TO: Randy Mikado
FROM: Owen Sidmann

Randy, I am seriously thinking of shelving this project if this is the best you can come up with. Buying stuff over the phone is an exploitation of wireless technology? Well, look at me, I'm leading edge. I just ordered the three-album "Slim Whitman Anthology" over the phone. Does the phrase "operators are standing by" sound familiar? We can already buy things over the phone. Randy, I think you've reached an impasse, or worse, a dead end.

April 5, 1984
TO: Owen Sidmann
FROM: Randy

Let's agree that a mobile appliance would at least liberate staff from the constraints of hard-wired office access. In H85903.4, I've outlined how wireless applications can facilitate communication by making staff members available 24 hours a day/7 days a week using what I call interoffice electronic mail, or "IEmail." This electronic bridge is the future of successful office communication. I say that with same assuredness that I believe Ralph Macchio will be the next Brando.

April 10, 1984
TO: Randy
FROM: Owen Sidmann

Wireless correspondence. I can see it now. You're at your daughter's first piano recital. What? No metronome? What's that syncopating click you hear? Why, that's some nut in the back of the room who doesn't know when to stop working. Maybe grandpa wouldn't mind you multitasking--grieving and holding a meeting--at his wake, but the rest of the grievers do. Randy, one of our unwritten objectives is to advance technology without compromising the necessary balance people need in order to function. In other words, ankle transmitters might be appropriate for felons, but they are demoralizing when used to monitor staff on performance probation (B32219). Look, if you kick a mime long enough, you can make him talk, but that doesn't mean you've improved his communication. There is a soft side of communications I think you're missing in your aggressive pursuit of wireless applications. Take some time to stop and smell the roses, and I think you'll see there's more to life than staying connected to the office.


The thread abruptly ends there, no doubt just before Mikado has the opportunity to proclaim Laura Branigan the next Streisand. But the four-week dialog that transpired more than fifteen years ago illustrates how both developers and users were just as polarized on the benefits and drawbacks of wireless technology as today's IT leaders are.

Whether you side with Mikado's relentless quest for a wireless application, which you know in your heart has a place in today's enterprise, or you share Mr. Sidmann's cynicism and believe you need to take a more cautious position, wireless technology has arrived and standards quickly need to be defined.

It may not happen overnight (it certainly hasn't), but for now, at least, we have a couple of wireless applications: Cell phones are great for making and receiving phone calls, and pagers are very effective at annoying people in theaters. That's a start. //

Chris Miksanek is the editor of MISinformation and may be reached at ChrisMik@aol.com.

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