The Dark Side of Connectivity

Beware the consequences of growing connectivity.

Whether were talking about Japanese schoolgirls—quickly becoming the worlds leading indicator for technology adoption—or peripatetic U.S. knowledge workers, live connections and hands-off updates are becoming the sine qua non. This may mean the death of the PDA as the minimalist device that Palm was so often congratulated on bringing to market. The question is whether an always-on connection, as close as our pocket or even as a piece of lifestyle jewelry, will disrupt our lives as thoroughly as its disrupting the PDA marketplace.

Sony jarred that market with its announcement this month that U.S. customers will not be seeing new models of its Clié handhelds, which heretofore set the standard for what could be done with the Palm operating system (and accounted for 14 percent of PalmSource revenues, according to that companys most recent quarterly report).

More quickly than anyone imagined, though, people noticed that a simple PDAs data starts to get out-of-date as soon as the device breaks its connection with the mother-ship PC. And that, it appears, is quickly becoming an unforgivable weakness—especially as cellular phones and their service providers have rapidly assimilated photography and other services into a platform that was born with infrastructure for making wireless connections and assessing service fees.

/zimages/5/28571.gifeWEEK News Editor Scot Petersen wonders if handhelds have a future. Click here to read his column.

I hope were a lot further along the learning curve of recognizing and designing for imperfect network environments than we were when we started putting modems into PCs.

Some imperfections are just part of the nature of wireless links: Microsofts forthcoming platform, for example, grabs that bull by its long horns, giving developers a powerful set of tools for dealing transparently with delayed or intermittent connections.

Some imperfections stem from malice rather than happenstance. Its both an ominous warning and a welcome sign of proactive response that Symantec anti-virus protection will be part of a new Nokia cellular phone package coming to market this year. F-Secure is planning later this year to offer anti-virus tools that are optimized for the limited memory and processing power of smart phones, but the company itself ironically illustrates the continuing war between caution and content: The F-Secure Web site uses ActiveX controls that trigger security warnings on my machines. Wireless platforms will likewise struggle to balance the goals of sizzle and safety.

Other consequences of growing connectivity flow from human nature. We react with an almost addictive impulse to new opportunities to connect with one another, and this can create real behavioral issues on and off the job.

"For Some, the Blogging Never Stops," observed a New York Times headline at the end of last month. The story profiled people who admit that they compose long entries several times a day—which they often go back and reread themselves. And I recently read that Japanese schoolteachers have learned to recognize when children are covertly typing notes to each other on their tiny keyboards; the students now evade detection by writing notes on the margins of their worksheets and sending them as images using their cellular telephone cameras.

I used the phrase "almost addictive," but some mental health practitioners go further than that. James Fearing, at the National Counseling Center in Minneapolis, has proposed a list of symptoms for diagnosing computer addiction, including being unable to keep promises to oneself to reduce ones online time or feeling anxious or depressed when other activities interfere with computer access.

The three-part signature of addiction, observed psychologist Maressa Orzack in an article in Psychiatric Times, combines tolerance, withdrawal and compulsive use, all of which she has seen in many computer users. She prefers the label "impulse-control disorder" when substance abuse is not involved, but she observed that constant access to anonymous connections often reinforces other psychiatric or psychological problems.

Were wired to connect with one another, and wireless makes it compellingly easy to do so with many potential benefits. Lets do it well—reliably, conveniently and securely—but lets also do it in moderation.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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