OPINION: Wireless Web Needs Work

Much has been made of the "wireless revolution" and the possibilities that are unleashed through cellular phones and personal digital assistants capable of accessing the Internet. Most of us have yet to be exposed to the Internet-capable versions of those devices, but most experts would agree that the role the devices play in the business world -- government included -- will expand dramatically in the next few years.

The number of cell phones being sold today that are Internet-capable has grown tremendously just during the past 12 months. These devices carry the promise of allowing their owners to fetch driving directions, make flight and hotel reservations, shop online and check e-mail all from their cell phones. If you've purchased a new cell phone recently, chances are it is equipped with Internet access capabilities. Unfortunately, you are also probably disappointed with how difficult and cumbersome its Internet capabilities are.

Internet-enabled cell phones carry much promise, but in practice, the Internet features are awkward and difficult to use for anything other than scrolling through the latest news. The primary difficulty in using the cell phone interface revolves around the lack of a usable keyboard and the terribly small viewing screen.

Most phones require the user to type by toggling through the letters on the dial pad. As a result, the exercise of typing in a simple destination address to retrieve driving directions could require more than 50 keystrokes! By the time you've entered in the address, waited for the server's reply and scrolled through the directions, it may have been faster to make a call and ask for the directions. The experience leaves one feeling frustrated rather than connected.

Most will find PDAs, such as Palm Inc.'s Palm devices, much better-suited for wireless Internet connectivity. The screen size of these devices is typically much larger, allowing the user to read through text much more conveniently.

Similarly, data entry is much easier through either a mini-keyboard or a scripting tool built into the device. As a result, the entire experience is much more convenient and satisfying. Unfortunately, the cost of the devices and the Internet access is still a bit steep for most users.

As one would expect, the bulk of government PDA users are busy executives and frequent business travelers who rely on them for scheduling and contact management. They are the obvious benefactors of the Internet-enabled handhelds.

Yet, clearly with the Internet component, these devices have tremendous potential in government for mobile and remote applications. As a result, we are likely to see these devices put to much more creative purposes in government in the near future.

The Internet-enabled versions of the cell phone and the PDA still require a great deal of refinement before they are ready for prime time. We are likely to see these two devices converge in the near future as well. But we've not even scratched the surface of the role they can play in the enterprise.

-- Kevin Plexico is vice president and chief technology officer at Input, an IT market research and marketing services firm.

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