Wireless Web Services: Finally Real, Even Useful

SAN FRANCISCO (03/21/2000) - For months, wireless Web services--which let you tap into the Internet with a cell phone, a pager, or a properly equipped handheld computer--have been touted as the next big Internet craze. Finally they're a reality, but like many other technological marvels, they don't immediately live up to their billing. Finding them and finding things to do with them are still difficult. However, providers plan to make wireless Internet services more widely available soon. At the same time, the services should become more useful as producers create content specifically for the small screens and narrow bandwidth of wireless devices.

Nonetheless, the caveats abound. Pricing policies are labyrinthine. At this stage of the wireless Web, not all services and applications are available on all devices. For example, Ameritrade Inc. users can trade stocks only on a Sprint PCS phone. Moreover, you'll have a hard time checking your corporate or personal e-mail because many wireless ISPs require you to set up a separate e-mail account for their devices. And privacy concerns are surfacing: Sprint PCS customers who use their mobile phones to surf the Web leave a record of their phone number at the sites they visit--a situation the company says will be remedied by mid-April.

Wireless ISPs

If you use a cellular phone, you will buy wireless Internet access as part of a bundle that includes voice calls and possibly paging services. AT&T's PocketNet was the first national carrier to offer Internet information on a wireless phone, followed last fall by Sprint PCS. Now other providers are joining the fray: GTE Wireless launched earlier this year, NexTel should be available in April, and AirTouch will follow this spring. Many regional digital cellular phone services are adding Internet access too.

The competition may lower prices, but it will certainly bring confusion.

Different providers serve different areas, and pricing and policies on roaming vary. Besides offering phone, wireless Web, and paging services, NexTel plans to include access to its Direct Connect walkie-talkie-like service, popular with businesses whose employees need instant voice communication. For a flat $10 a month, GTE Wireless lets you use your monthly allotment of minutes for either Internet access or voice calls. Sprint PCS gives customers on its cheapest wireless plan an hour of Internet connection time for an extra $10 a month. AT&T expected to introduce a $20 flat-rate surcharge in mid-April to cover PocketNet service for customers participating in its Digital One Rate voice programs.

The provider dictates your choice of phones. At launch, GTE Wireless offered Internet access only on a Qualcomm QP860 device; it planned to support several other brands by mid-April. NexTel requires one of various Motorola phones, and Sprint lets you choose from several models, including the lightweight, large-screen $299 Neopoint.

Wireless Portals

Wireless internet access isn't worth the radio waves it's carried on unless it brings good content. To make finding that content easier, a number of companies are building wireless portals--services that offer a menu of such wireless applications and content as e-mail, news, stock quotes, and local traffic information. In February Microsoft announced a beefed-up version of its portal-like MSN Mobile service. MSN Mobile 2.o will particularly benefit users of Microsoft's other Web services. These customers will be able to check itineraries booked through the Expedia travel site, read Hotmail messages, and check MoneyCentral portfolios. But this free service isn't available from all wireless carriers. At press time, NexTel and AirTouch were the only providers to offer MSN Mobile 2.0.

Other portals are building their own wireless versions: For example, Sprint PCS's Internet menu has a link to MyYahoo. Oracle's OracleMobile.com portal (www.oramobile.com) is accessible to devices with minibrowsers or text-messaging capabilities. Less-familiar players like Clickservices.com, GiantBear.com, and Strategy.com are launching wireless portals too. Still other companies such as Yodlee are developing wireless portal software that will eventually be used by major Web sites wishing to serve their mobile users.

Cool New Apps

Instant text messaging is one of the hottest new tricks on the wireless Internet circuit. America Online's AOL Anywhere, for example, will soon allow AOL's mobile customers to have instant messages forwarded to their Internet-enabled devices. Sprint PCS and BellSouth Wireless Data are the first announced partners in this service.

Two-way pagers such as Motorola's PageWriter 2000x and RIM's Inter@ctive Pager enable you to send instant text messages over data networks such as American Mobile, BellSouth, and Wireless WebLink (formerly PageMart), but these pagers cost more than $350; however, this summer Motorola will offer a petite $149 alternative, the Talkabout.

Several new services, including MobileID and PhoneFish.com, allow you to check your POP3 mail from a device with a minibrowser.

Wireless Shopping

Major web shopping sites are jumping on the wireless bandwagon. You can use an Internet-enabled phone, a Palm device, or a pager to buy items at Amazon.com.

Palm VII users can purchase concert tickets from TicketMaster and track EBay auctions. Movie listings will be available this spring to users of most Web-enabled phones and pagers.

If you're out shopping in a brick-and-mortar store and want to see if you're getting a fair deal, whip out your wireless Web device and call Barpoint or IQOrder. Both services can track down the best online price for an item, and IQOrder will even let you buy it from some e-tailers. Need help locating the nearest Federal Express drop box or Taco Bell? Look up the info in Vicinity's Brandfinder wireless application.

Because stock prices won't freeze while you rush to a PC, you need mobile options. E-Trade lets you check prices via a Palm VII. Other brokerages are working on their own wireless services.

Need a traffic report? Etak (www.etak.com) distributes traffic advisories for most major metropolitan areas to various wireless devices. Want driving directions? Mapquest.com routing advice is available to people who use Palm VII and Sprint PCS phones.

Stuck in a cab on the way to the airport? Most wireless carriers offer flight status info, though getting it can require laborious typing.

Tapping Into The Wireless Web

How much will all this information cost you? Good news: Most wireless Web apps are free. Many content services make their money from deals with your wireless ISP or through transaction fees--commissions on stock trades or product sales, for example. Personalized traffic reports and some other premium services, however, will likely cost an extra few dollars a month.

If you're not yet ready to jump in, you have company. A study by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association found that 26 percent of the 85 million wireless phones in the United States are Internet-ready, but most of them aren't used for data services. And only 12 percent of people who own Net-ready phones express great interest in using them for Web surfing.

Tiny displays (three or four lines of text with as little as a word per line), data-transmission rates that top out at a sluggish 14.4 kbps on most devices, and prohibitive prices are among the deterrents (see last October's Top of the News, www.pcworld.com/oct99/wireless). But as additional practical applications become available for wireless devices, and as we get used to the benefits, more and more of us will give the wireless Web a try--and get hooked.

The Wireless Web Gets Better

New wireless services for cell phones, pagers, and PDAs handle many tasks that usually require a standard PC and an Internet connection. Here are a few examples--and some of the major content providers and services that offer them.

* Check flight status (Expedia, GetThere.com)* Check POP3 e-mail (Clickservices.com, MobileID, PhoneFish.com)* Send instant messages (AOL Anywhere)* Obtain traffic alerts and driving directions (Etak, Mapquest)* Buy a gift (Amazon.com)* Trade stocks (Ameritrade on Sprint PCS, E-Trade on Palm VII)* Buy concert tickets (Ticketmaster)* Compare prices (Barpoint.com, IQOrder.com)* Find the nearest Federal Express drop box or Taco Bell (Vicinity).

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