A Whirlwind of Wireless Services

SAN FRANCISCO (03/06/2000) - When my boss asked me to attend the Wireless 2000 confab in New Orleans this week, I jumped at the opportunity. As an admitted gadget freak, I couldn't wait to check out the latest shiny and tiny wireless toys and learn more about cool wire-free services.

It was a chance for the wireless industry to stage its own three-day Mardi Gras of sorts, with the real thing taking place down the road on Bourbon Street.

The wireless world's Mardi Gras equivalent took place inside the Cellular Telecommunications Association Industry show. More than 25,000 tie-clad attendees tapped away at their miniature screens, checking appointments and e-mail. They gabbed incessantly on mobile phones, brokering deals and forging partnerships.

But despite the hype from bigwig chief executive officers like Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates and America Online Inc.'s Steve Case, I got the sense the wireless party hasn't begun.

In a theme echoed throughout the week, the industry is struggling to find the consumer's wireless pulse. What types of wireless services will people want?

"We don't know what [wireless services] consumers are going to demand," Case confessed during a keynote presentation. Chris Gent, Vodofone AirTouch CEO, was equally blunt, calling the wireless market a "quagmire."

While the wireless industry struggles to define its consumers, the show's offerings fall into three broad categories that hint at how the market might develop.

The Need-It-Now Factor

Already, many Internet-ready phones with microbrowsers can accept e-mail, alert you when the market moves, or tell you if your plane is delayed. Hardly revolutionary.

But Microsoft pulled the curtains back on an upcoming service with Outlook.

You'll be able to filter incoming e-mail and forward messages to any wireless mobile device.

For example, if your boss sends you e-mail, the service knows to forward it to you immediately, but it won't pass along a message from an unknown sender.

Better yet, Outlook could keep track of your schedule and know when you are at your desk or when you are in an important meeting and can't be disturbed.

During his keynote speech, AT&T President John Zeglis conjured a scene from the wireless future when your refrigerator is connected to the Internet and can send you a message to buy more milk on your way home from work.

Speech Recognition Is the Holy Grail

Many companies at this week's trade show unveiled vast improvements in technologies such as voice recognition. They believe the only way the wireless Internet will live up to its potential is if people can ask for information the same way they do over the phone.

The firm AirTrac, which specializes in text-to-voice and speech recognition, believes voice navigation of the Net is crucial. The company is working on a voice-enabled portal that will let you issue surfing commands into your mobile phone.

Starting this fall, it will offer services that will let you access everything from weather and stocks to news and shopping by speech commands, with a computer-synthesized voice answering.

Companies such as Alcatel, Qualcomm, IBM, and Sun Microsystems demonstrated dozens of voice-recognition services. As ambitious and visionary as these technologies are, however, many failed to work during live demonstrations.

Location, Location, Location

Because wireless phones are essentially beacons constantly broadcasting their whereabouts, some services are rushing to leverage that capability. SignalSoft, TruePosition, and SnapTrack are among those developing services that will provide valuable location-based information.

SignalSoft demonstrated a service that will let you find the closest restaurant, hospital, or mall just by turning on your mobile device. If you're lost, it can draw you a map on a device that can display it. The service, scheduled to be available this year, will give you a local weather forecast even if you don't know where you are.

The idea is that someday when you're stuck in traffic, you need only turn on your wireless device. The service would locate you and suggest alternate routes. Or if you were in a strange town hankering for some sesame chicken, SignalSoft could point you to the closest Chinese restaurant.

From the enthusiasm displayed at the conference, it's obvious that wireless mobile devices and the Internet hold enormous potential to deliver new services to consumers. Still unclear is what those services will be. Put the emphasis on the word potential--but it is promising, too.

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