In the near future, predicts Jay Steinmetz, school teachers armed with handheld gadgets may scan student ID cards to log attendance for the day and then beam the information to a central school computer. Parents - at least those with access to a personal computer - could then check the school Web site to ensure that their kids didn't play hooky.
Sound like a page out of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"? Perhaps. But the scenario isn't fantasy and it highlights the coming explosion in functions, or "applications," for handheld wireless devices - cell phones, pagers, and the array of personal digital assistants.
"The future is looking very slick when it comes to wireless," said Steinmetz, whose Baltimore company, Barcoding.com, has developed a wireless system that allows schools to track attendance, class schedules and cafeteria purchases through the use of bar codes and wireless devices.
In fact, say wireless industry experts, common applications today - such as accessing personal calendars, stock quotes and weather reports - may soon seem primitive. Many wireless service providers may have to provide them as free or standard services to compete, say experts.
In the near future, consumers will be able to get information as diverse and personalized as drug prescriptions, checking account balances, sales and inventory records, theater and movie ticket availability, restaurant locations, even Little League scores. It's a digital tidal wave headed for a palm near you.
Even now, AT&T; Wireless, Sprint, and Bell Atlantic's Verizon are offering customers in select U.S. cities, including Baltimore and Washington, access to limited Internet sites via new digital phones. But that is just the tip of what promises to be a very big iceberg, say company executives and other experts.
The day is not far off, say experts, when U.S. businesses begin arming their work forces with cell phones or other electronic wireless devices in much the same fashion personal computers were installed en masse in the 1980s.
Also in the works: Web-enabled cellular phone users will be able to instantly check bank account balances and make purchases in stores. "Amazon.com on the run," as one industry expert calls it.
"The phone and other digital devices are going to replace debit cards and cash," said David Oros, founder and chief executive officer of Owings Mills-based Aether Systems Inc., which is in a joint venture to develop and market "electronic wallets."
As a result of Aether's innovations, and those of a handful of other companies in the region, the Baltimore-Washington area has emerged as one of the hotbeds of activity for start-ups angling for a piece of the action, notes Mark Desautels, president of the Wireless Data Forum, a Washington-based trade group, and other experts. The other big arena for wireless innovation: Silicon Valley, of course.
The efforts of Aether and others to develop electronic wallet technology is giving rise to a new marketplace known as mobile commerce, or m-commerce. It's already taken hold in some limited locations in Europe and Japan where wireless networks are a couple of leaps ahead of the fragmented U.S. system, noted Desautels.
Indeed, many wireless industry experts believe that the race to develop and sell wireless information services will replace the dot-com frenzy as the next gold rush.
The reason: Billions are at stake in potential subscription fees, transaction fees, advertising and other revenue, say analysts, though no one has yet come up with a specific revenue estimate.
"Just when you've got your servers and network running and had your dot-com focused on beating the competition, guess what? You have to start it all over again. The wireless Web is here and it's going to revolutionize how American business operates," said Alex Lightman, co-founder of Charmed Technology Inc., a Silicon Valley-based spinoff of the MIT Media Lab.
Forrester Research Inc., which studies the Internet, predicts that the number of people using a mobile phone, or other "smart device" in the United States will grow to a 61 percent market penetration rate - 177 million by 2005, up from about 103 million today. And almost 100 percent of the devices will access the Internet.
"It will be almost invisible that you're accessing the Web," said Mark Zohar, a wireless industry analyst with Forrester.
Common applications, including e-mail, instant messaging and timely personal information, such as when a particular item is up for auction on eBay.com, will be common in a few years, said Zohar. The dominant mobile device will be the cell phone, he predicted. "The killer application in all of this will remain voice. Mobile people still want to talk."
But the biggest money to be made, said Zohar, will be in what are called business-to-employee applications - allowing employees to send and retrieve business data using mobile phones and other devices. That will develop slower than the general consumer market, he said.
But Lightman's Charmed Technology has found a business niche it thinks will grow quickly. The venture is developing wearable, wireless computers that can access the Internet through a proprietary operating system called NANIX.
Its first commercial device is due out this year: A badge imbedded with infrared chips that will allow trade show and convention goers to exchange and share information that can downloaded into a laptop or PC.
Desautels at the Wireless Data Forum said the growth prospects will spawn dozens of companies in the next several years. The forum expects the ranks of Web-enabled cell phone users to mushroom from a few thousand today into the millions in the next several years, opening up revenue potential for wireless service providers.
Desautels credits Aether, one of this region's biggest players, and its chief competitor Wireless Knowledge Inc., founded by Microsoft Corp. and Qualcomm Inc., with developing technologies that are helping the industry expand and move in new directions.
Aether wants to put Web-enabled wireless devices into as many U.S. workers' hands as possible.
The goal: build a giant monthly subscription base in U.S. industries for devices armed with Aether's proprietary software technology (Aether Intelligent Messaging, or AIM), which allows virtually any electronic device with a modem to retrieve and send information via the Web through Aether's data network.
"It's our belief that at some point everyone's going to have a mobile computing device," said Aether CEO Oros, a former Westinghouse Corp. engineering executive and University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate.
"Probably the most interesting wireless applications are ones no one has even thought of yet," said Oros. Eventually, he and others predict, all wireless devices will be mobile and connected.
"The market opportunities are really almost too big to imagine. In the billions, I'd say," said the executive.
The company, which went public less than a year ago but already has a market capitalization of $7.2 billion, initially targeted the financial industry.
Brokers, traders and other financial professionals tend to be early adopters of new technologies that allow them to stay on top of the market. Its first alliances were with business news giant Reuters and online trading pioneer Charles Schwab Corp.
Schwab began rolling out a wireless trading service using Aether's technology last week. Aether is moving quickly to sew up other "vertical markets." These include the field sales and service industries, transportation, and health care.
To accomplish that end, the profitless but well-financed Aether - it raised $1.4 billion in a secondary offering in March - has been acquiring or striking alliances with established companies in those industries to gain a quick toehold and industry expertise.
Other wireless companies include ReachNet, a privately held Baltimore start-up that has developed an instant two-way messaging network for RIMM pagers made by Canada's Research in Motion Ltd.
ReachNet Chief Executive Officer John C. Kirby Jr. has its eye on what it expects to be a hot market in the next several years: the "enterprise computing" space in which highly mobile workers trade instant e-mail messages, company data, and business "chats" in a cryptic cyber shorthand.
Baltimore start-up MobileCoyote.com founder Jemel Hatcher has developed a modem that can be installed in laptop computers or personal digital assistant devices, enabling access to the Internet. The company plans to begin marketing the tool this summer.
Also, Infinite Technologies Inc. of Owings Mills contracts with telecommunications outfits to provide e-mail services for cell phone users.
Meanwhile, Barcoding.com's vice president for marketing David Shapiro said the company is dazzled at the customers it's been gaining in industries as diverse as the heating and air conditioning to the rare stamp auction trade. All the customers seem to want the same thing: wireless barcoding devices that allow workers to instantly transmit and receive vital data while on the go.
The industry still has key hurdles to overcome. Among them are security and privacy issues, said Sam Callard, senior financial services analyst with Cyber Dialogue, a Boston-based Internet market consulting group.
Another big arena of dispute and eventual fierce competition within the industry is the battle over frequency spectrum space. Much of it is locked up in licenses but not fully used, or is waiting for technology to be advanced, said Lightman at Charmed Technology. Still, entrepreneurs see blue skies ahead.
"People ask me, 'Jay, is it going to be big?' Its going to be huge," said Barcoding.com's Steinmetz. "Wireless technology will eventually touch everything we do."