The Wireless Web: A Reality Check

NEW ORLEANS (03/02/2000) - Internet-enabled phones and portable devices are intended to hasten a personalized, roving, wireless Web. But will it be the second coming of the Net or just new charges for your mobile phone bill?

The Wireless 2000 show here, sponsored by Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, saw no shortage of handset makers and wireless service providers.

They talked up wireless application protocol and other Internet microbrowsers.

They introduced basic phones with WAP browsers and smart phones with built-in personal digital assistants, as well as handhelds and portable music players.

They'll all bring you the wireless Web, if your carrier offers it and you subscribe.

But it's still early.

"We are about where black-and-white television was in the 1950s," says John Zeglis, AT&T president and a director of AT&T, and chair and chief executive officer of AT&T Wireless Group. Like the first TV sets, wireless Web access is drawing a great deal of attention, but it is not widely adopted and is still in the early stages of the technology.

Of the 85 million wireless phones in use in the United States, 26 percent can access the Internet, but most aren't used for that. In fact, only 12 percent of people who own Web-accessible phones have great interest in surfing on them, according to a study by Peter D. Hart Research.

Many companies are doing their best to change that.

From Ear to Web

It all starts with a phone. This year, we'll see smarter and smaller mobile phones, almost all with Web access. Unlike PCs, Web phones cater to different ages and needs. For example, Motorola offers the V.2288 phone for teens, with a built-in FM radio and a digital voice recorder. Its Timeport P7389e includes a smart card or virtual wallet for shopaholics.

Kyocera and Ericsson will both ship WAP phones for U.S. consumers this year.

Kyocera's phones have sharp bitmap displays and colorful cases. Ericsson's units weigh a mere 4.5 ounces, and you can snap on inexpensive accessories to type text chat or listen to MP3s.

Smart phones and PDAs like the Palm Computing Palm VII let you surf the wireless Web on screens large enough to appreciate it. Smart phones also have built-in PDAs to store your contacts, schedule, and e-mail. Ericsson, LG InfoComm, and Nokia slim down the multifunction devices into units you'd actually talk on. But they won't be cheap; prices could approach $1000.

Handhelds Go Wireless

PDAs in all shapes and sizes open another window to the wireless Web.

Ericsson's handheld communicator has a WAP browser, color PDA, and speakerphone. Palm VII offers wireless access, but only to site excerpts through Palm's Web clipping. Compaq Aero users can get an add-on WAP browser and cable to surf the Web by mobile phone. Palm V users can get Web clipping through an add-on.

Expected this spring are Pocket PC devices, which are powered by an updated Microsoft Windows CE. They won't necessarily offer wireless connectivity at launch, but they will soon, says Greg Huh, a Compaq product marketing manager.

The wireless Web won't stop with PDAs, suggests Michael Capellas, president and CEO of Compaq He uses the term "e-tronics" for new devices that merge PCs with Internet and wireless connectivity. For example, he envisions a wearable device on which you could download and play music.

Services Wherever

Clearly, wireless Web devices are rolling out, but what's their practical value? At Wireless 2000, countless service providers announced new sites and services you can reach by phone or PDA.

Some applications are practical. Armed with your Web-enabled phone, you can land in a new city and immediately check weather forecasts and get directions to your hotel and a good restaurant.

Sites with real-time information like stock quotes, schedules, and mapping may indeed become the nuts and bolts of the wireless Web. Global Positioning Satellite services identify your location by your phone and offer information about where you are (even if you don't know). OmniAlert and Strategy.com offer stock quotes and financial news for the day trader on the move.

Anxious for a slice of the wireless pie, major Internet portals are partnering with carriers and handset makers to offer shortcuts to sites. This week, America Online announced Sprint PCS and BellSouth will put one-button AOL access on some Nokia and Motorola phones. Microsoft cut a similar deal with Nextel and AirTouch, so you can check your Hotmail or surf MSN through those services. Yahoo partners with Sprint PCS for the same function.

Shopping on a 2-Inch Screen?

Amazon.com now offers one-click shopping for WAP browsers and Web-enabled phones. But who wants to e-shop on a phone? Service providers report interest in e-mail by phone, but much less demand for WAP e-commerce. Most of us still wonder what services and devices make the most sense for us.

Some are waiting for the wireless Web to mature. Comparison-shopping site IQorder.com plans to become accessible by Web phones--but not yet.

Voice services might make Web-browsing more comfortable from a phone. Already you can get voice-activated dialing, and AirTrac and Lucent are among those developing voice-to-text services so you can talk your way through the Web.

Voice Access Technologies offers speech-to-text access to traffic information.

Too Early to Tell

The nascent state of the wireless industry invites new service providers to scramble, because Internet Goliaths like Amazon.com, AOL, and Microsoft are only beginning to stake claims.

"There is still no killer app for the wireless world," says David Smith, a wireless Internet marketing specialist with Nortel Networks.

Even AOL's Steve Case doesn't believe his company can dominate the wireless world. "It's about building partnerships," Case says. "If we view this industry as just about AOL, phones, PCs, and TVs, we'll be in trouble."

He says companies must work together to help the wireless market reach its enormous potential. Sales of handheld computers, PDAs, digital phones, and pagers combined are expected to exceed that of PCs by 2001, according to market researcher IDC.

But for now, the wireless world is stuck on the ground. Mobile commerce remains in its infancy, and most wireless networks top out at 14.4k-bps.

While the handsets are ready and the WAP sites mount, the rollout of the services showcased at CTIA to customers of Sprint PCS, GTE Wireless, Nextel and others will be slow until carriers figure out how to make them profitable. And then, will we use them?

(Tom Spring contributed to this report.)

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