Paul Boutin has a nice piece in Slate about the new Centrino, and the rise of Wi-Fi. Partly to see what all the fuss was about, partly to do a little technological ethnography myself, and partly because I sometimes just need to geek out, a couple weeks ago I set up a base station in my office, and bought a card for my laptop. Since my office looks out over a couple picnic tables, this means that I can go outside and still be online– an appealing prospect here in California. Last week, I got a new PDA, and chose it largely on the basis of it having WiFi capability. (It also plays MP3s.) So what’s my experience?

The short answer is that I love it, and am already frustrated by its limitations.

First of all, WiFi feels like a clunky prototype of the future. Not the technology itself, but rather the practices it enables. Being able to access the Web, or your e-mail, on the road will change social practices as much as cell phones have. The most important thing is that it’ll enable all manner of real-time, place-specific forms of information retrieval and creation: we’re already starting to see this with moblogging, but it’s got huge implications for travel (what’s that plant? what’s that painting?), shopping, emergency services, etc.. WiFi offers a tiny sense of what ubiquity is going to feel like, and it’s going to be cool. (Another way of putting it is that WiFi will create a level of familiarity with wireless Internet access that will raise the demand for mobile services and content.)

It’s also going to drive Internet access off the desktop, and onto other devices, like my PDA. This in turn will increase the pressure on the WIMP interface, and encourage people to develop new kinds of interfaces that you can access while walking down the street, or operate on the margins of your awareness.

The fact that Wifi is available only in highly localized areas– there’s a reason they call it “hot spots”– is rapidly becoming a real irritation. Why can’t I get online at [insert random location], I grouse, even when I’ve never EVER needed to check my e-mail, much less surf the Web, at that location. It also makes me appreciate those places that do have WiFi access even more.

Then there’s the problem that even if you have the technology, access isn’t particularly easy to set up: everyone has proprietary systems that require different setups, passwords, accounts, etc.. Thus Starbucks teams up with T-Mobile to offer WiFi in its cafes, Wayport partners with a different set of cafes, etc.. Clearly the idea at present is to use hotspot access to build loyalty to particular franchises or places: once you’ve got a T-Mobile account, you’re less likely to stray to Le Boulanger. A sensible idea from the providers’ point of view, but a terrible one from the users’: even a very big network is still restrictive, and it dims the appeal of WiFi to have to stay in particular places to use it.

If the technology is really going to take off, we need a different access model: one in which, say, services allow for roaming onto each others’ networks, with some additional charge (like getting money from another banks’ ATM machine). Better yet would be for stores to treat WiFi like the bathroom or overhead lights: something that you just provide for customers’ convenience, with the understanding that customers will buy something for the privilege of use.

Still, I’m enamored by the technology. The other night Heather asked me, “How long will it be now before we have to get a wireless network here in the house?” I answered, “What time is it now?”

Finally, it’s a really good example of how we have to pay attention to ergonomics and practice to understand the implications and uses of technologies. Too many futurists will look at a Moore’s Law-like curve, listen to a Media Lab talk, and from that extrapolate an Amazing New Future. But as Herbert Dreyfus argued in “On the Internet,” there’s an irreducibly physical quality to our processing of information, and our interactions with the world. He meant it in a more philosophical sense, but the degree to which you can carry a device around, use it easily, refer to it while holding a polite conversation, and not have it be too disruptive of your social interactions, plays a big role in shaping how it’s used.

For example, take the use of computers in the classroom. This is one of those things that everyone seems to agree is a good thing; it’s also become an easy way to place schools on one or the other side of the Digital Divide. BUT: what happens to a class when it’s got a bunch of computers in it? The students end up spending more time dealing with the computer than they do with each other; the bulkiness of the machines, the noise of the fans, the distraction of the screen, all conspire to draw attention away from the class and toward the machine. Certainly computer literacy is important; but the ergonomics and dynamics of conventional computers make them poor accessories for a classroom. I think the situation will be very different in a dozen years, when students can bring in a few sheets of digital paper or a cheap pad computer: technologies like those hold the promise of being no more distracting than today’s books and notes.