Over the Edge: Randy Mikado: Unplugged!

Has wireless technology delivered on its promise? By the way, what was the promise of wireless technology? Found 1980s correspondence reveals original vision.
Posted November 28, 2000

Chris Miksanek

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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."

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