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HARDWARE

World Without Wires

Three companies are capitalizing on the emerging wireless mobile computing market.
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STATE OF THE ART

Richard Shaffer, editor of VentureFinance, calls it "very hot, with some smart capital behind it." And Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capitalist Kevin Compton -- whose firm backed computer trailblazers like Sun, Compaq, and Lotus -- says, "There's more going on here than even at the height of the PC-market boom."

What are these people talking about? Wireless mobile computing, which enables people to communicate electronically anytime, anywhere. There's a new generation of wireless products on its way, with names like "personal digital assistants" (PDAs) and "personal intelligent communicators" (PICs). These new messaging devices and sophisticated two-way pagers will be able to send and receive real-time data and voice messages without a separate modem. This emerging market -- which by some estimates could reach $1 billion by 1998 -- is attracting the attention of giants like Motorola, Apple, Tandy, and Hewlett-Packard. But it's also creating opportunities for entrepreneurs.

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The Network:
Nationwide Wireless Network, Jackson, Miss.

On June 24, 1993, Nationwide Wireless Network (NWN) was awarded a "pioneer's preference" by the Federal Communications Commission in recognition of its groundbreaking work. In effect, the FCC gave NWN clearance to build the country's first two-way, high-speed nationwide wireless messaging network. NWN president Jai Bhagat estimates the cost to build the network (which will rely on 3,000 base stations as well as satellite links) at $100 to $150 million. He hopes to have it in operation in the top 300 U.S. markets by 1995, providing a host of services ranging from two-way messaging to wireless electronic-mail delivery and shopping. NWN was launched in 1991 as a subsidiary of Mobile Telecommunications Technologies, a $113-million growth company whose Skytel division is one of the leading nationwide providers of one-way messaging. NWN has since attracted $11 million in venture capital.

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The Software:
21 CenNet, Richardson, Tex.

21 CenNet also hopes to capture a piece of the wireless marketplace -- estimated by Booz, Allen, & Hamilton to grow to more than 13 million users by the year 2000. Founded in 1991 with $5 million from venture capitalists and Compaq, 21 CenNet is developing two-way wireless connectivity software, so portable-computer users can, without a modem, send information to the home office as well as receive it. The company's first product, which uses cellular communications, is scheduled to go into production before year's end.

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The Hardware:
Wireless Access, San Jose, Calif.

Judy Owen, who founded Wireless Access in 1991, has raised $6 million in venture capital to develop the company's first product, a computer add-on memory card. The card, about the size and thickness of two stacked credit cards, can be slipped into a hand-held computer or PDA, where it will function as a very advanced alphanumeric pager. The pager can track, plot, and update real-time data and alert the user to any dramatic change, like a stock-price drop. Motorola, the paging giant with an 85% market share, in August introduced a similar card pager that works with the Apple Newton. But Owen claims the Motorola device is more awkward. "They're the leader," she says. "We expect them to be out there. But we're an alternative that's attractive and competitive."

-- Alessandra Bianchi

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