Say you're driving in downtown Baltimore on business, when the dishwasher in your house in Timonium goes on the fritz. The machine does a quick diagnostic check on itself, locates the problem and e-mails a repair center to request service - after consulting an online calendar where your appointments for the next week are posted. Seconds later, your laptop beeps. You prudently pull over to the curb to find a waiting e-mail that tells you that help is on the way and displays your dishwasher's warranty information on the screen and, for good measure, flashes ads for appliance sales at area department stores.
It sounds like something from The Jetsons. But this seemingly outlandish scenario and countless variations on it are a big step closer to reality, as Baltimore hosts a cutting-edge communications system that is blanketing the area in high-speed, wireless Internet access.
Charm City might not be Silicon Valley, but because of the initiative by Sprint Nextel Corp., it has a valid claim as the temporary "geek capital of the world," as one technology executive put it.
The service, called XOHM (pronounced "Zome"), may strike some as pricey at up to $50 a month. But as with all communications advances, time and competition - Verizon and AT&T; are quickly developing similar services - are bound to bring prices down.
In the rapidly changing world of technology, it's not always easy to distinguish major advances from less-significant ones. So, to be clear: This one is a big deal. It combines the portability of a BlackBerry with the versatility of online laptop computing - and, if the hype is to be believed, at higher than current speeds.
Fast, on-the-go Internet access is a good thing all by itself. But as the example of the wired dishwasher shows, what's more exciting is that this technology will make possible experiences that don't yet exist - and can only be imagined. Think of an ambulance crew able to stream photos or video of an accident victim's injuries to doctors awaiting that patient at a hospital. What about students on a field trip or Scouts on a camping trip, able to consult the Internet for instant information about weather, geology, history? The possibilities are infinite.
That's why tech mavens such as Mario Armstrong - formerly the mayor's technology advocate, now an independent consultant - hope Baltimore officials will seize on Sprint's investment here as an opportunity not just to improve city services but to lure companies to build and design WiMAX-compatible devices throughout Baltimore. The window of opportunity is probably only a year or two before the technology spreads to the rest of the country. An October conference is in the works for area entrepreneurs, economic development officials and government leaders to discuss how the city can take advantage of its head start.
When today's toddlers are adults, they will be amused to think there was a time when Americans couldn't go online any time, anywhere. It's a glimpse of a future where universal wireless Internet access will be taken for granted the way cell phone access is today. Nice to see we're the launching pad.