A Sprint Through the Web

SAN FRANCISCO (06/14/2000) - Web phones can be a wealth of mobile information, but you'll still deal with some frustration when dialing for data on a device designed for voice.

Sprint PCS is one the first major carriers with a wireless Internet service; its Wireless Web debuted last September.

Since then, as many other carriers have launched services, Sprint has busily added new services and content. Among its partners are shopping sites Amazon.com Inc. and Barnes & Noble and the online auction site EBay Inc. Sprint customers can check their portfolios on Fidelity Investments. And they can get mobile entertainment on the likes of FoxSports.com and Hollywood.com. Soon, even America Online Inc. will be on the menu.

It's high time to look at what Sprint PCS has to offer today. But, as with some other fledgling wireless mobile offerings, while the content is there, coverage barriers and navigational pains still make the service less than easy to use.

Size for Surfing

To surf the Sprint PCS Wireless Web, you first need a Sprint voice plan and one of the ten available phones that support Sprint's Web services (five more designs have been announced). You'll want to consider the display size when choosing a phone you'll use for data.

At $299.99, the Sprint PCS NP1000 single-band smart phone I tried is hardly a steal, but it offers personal digital assistant features such as a calendar, an address book, and synchronization with Outlook, as well as voice recognition for 30 contacts. While slightly heavy (6.4 ounces), the Sprint-branded NeoPoint phone also has a large 11-line display. Battery life suffers with Web use. The phone promises 40 hours on standby, but after some brief use of the wireless Internet, it lasted only 24.

A Sprint PCS voice plan gives you six months of Wireless Web free, then it costs $9.95 monthly. You use your calling plan minutes for both voice and surfing, but at rates of 14.4 kilobits per second, those data minutes can add up. (Sprint plans to boost that to 56 kbps this summer.) Sprint PCS charges 25 cents per minute for Web access when you exceed your plan, so choose your voice plan accordingly. Unlike Sprint PCS, AT&T PocketNet doesn't charge by minutes, but to get full browsing you have to pay another $14.95 monthly.

Besides wireless Internet, Sprint PCS also offers short text messages with your choice of news updates through Yahoo on any phone. You get 30 free updates with a wireless Web plan; otherwise it's 10 cents per update. But you don't need a phone with a browser to get the updates, says Kami Jowers, a Sprint PCS spokesperson.

Phone Surfing: It's Not Your PC's Web

Be warned: The Web you get on a mobile phone is not the Internet. Entering URLs on a phone is just plain difficult, and many sites are not yet available in a format--such as handheld data markup language (HDML) or wireless markup language (WML)--that can be viewed by the phone's browser. Instead, Sprint PCS and other carriers offer a menu of installed links to major sites.

When I turned on the phone, I selected the Web icon and was taken to a menu that began with "@Sprint PCS" and included Yahoo, Amazon.com, Fidelity, Go2online, Bloomberg, CNN, and FoxSports. You can manually enter additional sites into a Bookmarks folder. Some carriers let you set up your bookmarks on the desktop, but for now Sprint PCS requires that you key them into the phone, which can be tedious.

"We'll shortly offer more customization," Jowers says. Already you can use a Web-enabled Sprint PCS phone as a modem to wirelessly browse the Web with the full browser on your laptop.

Beyond the initial menu listings, Sprint PCS Wireless Web service includes channels on which you can pick from wireless content by category. For instance, the finance section offers links to Fidelity as well as Ameritrade, Bloomberg, and Go2money. And shopping includes Amazon.com, FTD.com, EBay, ECompare, Barnes & Noble, and Go2shopping.

Wireless access is all about time. Scrolling to content is slow. Phones don't cache pages like browsers, so going back is as tiresome as going forward.

Besides the menu drawbacks and coverage holes--Sprint PCS Wireless Web only works where Sprint PCS voice coverage exists--entering URLs with the alphanumeric keys is nearly impossible. I punched in PCWorld.com only to find a WAP version of the site is not yet available.

Best Bet: Big Sites

I'm impatient, so I returned to the big name sites on page one and clicked on Amazon.com. With a bit of tedious input, I found the CD I wanted and hit "buy."

I tried to use my existing Amazon.com log-in, but I was asked to reenter all my billing information, so I gave up.

News updates, directions, weather, and e-mail (through Yahoo and soon AOL) are more user-friendly applications on the Sprint PCS Wireless Web.

Mapquest supplied directions to a nearby store while I wandered the streets one day. San Francisco is a city of microclimates; by entering my zip code, I got the latest forecast for my neighborhood from the Weather Channel.

Caught on a commuter train the day the Microsoft Corp. verdict was due at noon Pacific Time, I checked the news wires on the Sprint PCS phone. I learned that Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson postponed his announcement by an hour and a half.

Indeed, I had time to cover the Microsoft decision.

I'm a hockey fan, and this week is the Stanley Cup finals, so I hit FoxSports News. I selected NHL and got the score from the game the night before, which I already knew. I then hit "latest sports news" and got a list of headlines; I picked the one that mentioned Stanley. Finally, the wire story I wanted--well, at least, four or five lines of it. That's when I learned that scrolling and reading on a phone is a blinding process.

Exiting Sprint PCS's Wireless Web is trickier than entering. I could just see the minutes racking up while I tried to back out of the menu page. Finally I hit the "end" button and was asked: "Want to exit the wireless Internet?"

"Yes," I tapped. Gladly.

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