Trade On: Blue-Chip Brokers Add Wireless Services

SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - Online brokerage firms make trading stocks on a PC cheap and easy. Now, wireless services make it mobile, too. E-Trade Group Inc. and Charles Schwab & Co. (and soon Merrill Lynch as well) are the latest brokers to let you manage accounts via wireless Palm and Windows CE devices, two-way pagers, or Web-enabled phones.

Strings Attached

But moving from wired to wireless Web investing can be complicated. Your broker may not work with your wireless device or service provider. For example, Fidelity's Instant Broker is on the Sprint Corp. PCS Wireless Web menu, while E-Trade is on AT&T Corp. PocketNet, GTE Wireless, and Verizon.

Even if your brokerage does not have a Palm application or a slot on the menu of a Web-enabled phone or pager, you may be able to access your account via a minibrowser, but it won't be easy. You typically have to enter the URL on a tiny phone keypad or an even tinier keyboard, or with a stylus. And you can access your account only within the coverage area of your wireless service:

Don't expect roaming for wireless Internet access.

I tested the Suretrade service on a Palm VII device and on a Sprint PCS phone.

With the Palm VII application, service was easy but slow. Trading was brisk on the Sprint PCS phone but more complicated, because I had to key in Suretrade's URL on the telephone keypad. After that, access was easier and zippier than on the Palm--but my phone's small screen made reading more frustrating.

Untethered Trading

What can you do with your wireless Web portfolio? That too depends on your service and broker. Without even opening an account, you typically can get stock quotes and maybe market news. Subscribers can execute trades, or opt to receive alerts when a stock price reaches a given level, a feature that may prove more appealing to mobile investors than the ability to trade.

"I don't think everyone will be making trades from a wireless device," predicts Greg Smith, a senior analyst who specializes in electronic brokerage at Chase H&Q. "A larger group will use the device to access data and receive alerts."

This pattern is already visible with PC-based online investors: Many more people use the Web for research than for actual trading, which they typically conduct over the phone or via a traditional broker.

Despite the increase in wireless portfolio services, most people who could use them don't--partly because the wireless services are clunky compared to more traditional wired alternatives, and partly because of security concerns. But those concerns may not be justified, says Pete Rickets, Ameritrade's senior vice president of product development. Rickets says security with a Sprint PCS phone is probably greater than with a desktop browser, because Sprint's PCS network is more secure than the general Internet.

If you're interested in wireless investing now, check with your brokerage to see what services and devices it supports--you may have to change brokerages or services to get the features you want. Despite the confusion over services and platforms, most brokers are betting wireless will be big. "In two to four years, we expect to have as many people interacting from a mobile device as from a PC," says Jim Safka, general manager of E-Trade Everywhere. Maybe someday, like the ad says, we will all invest this way.

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