Techies agree the future belongs to wireless

By MIKE BENBOW

Herald Writer

Psst. Wanna know about the next big thing?

Forget the personal computer. Think wireless communication.

That’s what some of the biggest minds at some of Seattle’s biggest technology and venture capital firms agreed Tuesday during a panel discussion assembled by the Associated Press for area business editors and writers.

"The cell phone is truly the thing that will change everyday life," said Richard Tong, a partner in Ignition Corp., a venture capital firm. "It will change the way everyone lives and works."

Tong, a former longtime Microsoft employee who describes his job as "dreaming big", has five cell phones and a monthly bill that runs about $500 to $600.

He said those cell phones are worth every penny.

Unsnapping a tiny phone from his belt, he let his fingers do the walking to a service that accessed his office e-mail and started reading it to him in an understandable voice. He also arranged to have some electronic documents faxed to the next stop on his schedule by sending a few simple commands through the keypad.

"This phone is four times more powerful than the original personal computer," Tong said. "Think about that the next time you make a phone call to your mom."

Paul Bialek, chief financial officer of Real Networks of Seattle, also sees a world where wireless communication is king. His firm is already the world leader in delivering music and other media over the Internet.

He said new wireless Internet devices will change the way we entertain ourselves by giving us anytime access to whatever we want to see or hear.

"Think of the notion of a record store open 24 hours a day, seven days a week on your street corner and everyone else’s street corner," he said. "It’s going to be very, very fascinating."

Bialek said cell phones are considered a luxury in the United States, but noted that many developing countries are finding it cheaper to erect wireless towers and skip the idea of linking everyone with telephone wires or fiber optic cable.

Because cell phones have snob appeal, usage in the U.S. is low in comparison to other countries, Tong said, noting that only two out of every five Americans has one. But that means the potential market is large, he added.

He said Seattle is a "great lab" for technological innovation because many of its residents work in the field. And the wireless companies with headquarters here may help lead the revolution.

"It’s likely that Seattle will be the next wave," he said. "Seattle is the place for the wireless Internet."

Bialek said that wave could come quickly as growing usage around the world drives down cell phone costs.

"We’re going to wake up some day and say, ‘Wow, how did that happen,’ " he said.

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