Use Your Cell Phone as a Wireless Modem

SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - About a year ago I realized I was a prisoner in my own home office. Determined to venture out into the light more frequently, I passed my aging Pentium desktop to my 7-year-old and bought one of the latest ultraportables. Now, I figured, I could take the show on the road and work at the library, the airport, the coffee shop, or under a shady tree.

It seems like 90 percent of my work revolves around e-mail, so even when my computer is untethered, my work isn't. After resisting the cell phone craze for years, I decided to go mobile, partly because of the promise of wireless Internet access. To my disappointment, I discovered that wireless Web access is easier said than done. Still, if you have some idea of what you're getting into, going online via cell phone is possible, and maybe even worthwhile.

Look Ma, No Wires

I'm not talking about receiving e-mail messages, stock quotes, or stripped-down Web pages on your phone's teensy-weensy display. Phones, pagers, and PDAs that use the Wireless Application Protocol may be the latest rage, but I'm talking about something else--using your cellular phone as the "wireless" half of a wireless modem.

Even with the latest digital cellular service, your connection speed is going to be ponderously slow, especially when signal strength is weak. Maybe in a few years you'll be able to connect to the Web wirelessly at ISDN- or DSL-like speeds, but currently the fastest connection that most of us will realize using a digital cell phone is 14.4 kbps--fast enough for basic Web browsing and e-mail, but forget about MP3s and streaming media.

You'll also have to purchase a special cable (about $70 to $100) that connects your phone to your modem. The cable I got came with rudimentary software that lets me transfer phone numbers between the phone and the address book on my notebook. It's a good thing, too, because if your experience is like mine, this may turn out to be the only use you get out of the cable.

More Wireless Perils With Analog CellularAnalog cellular connection speeds are even slower--usually about 9600 bps. If you're still using an analog cell phone, consider upgrading to digital if the service is available in your area. Dual-mode phones are convenient because they switch automatically from digital to analog mode when you roam out of your home area. Even if you can live with the analog connection's slowness, there's another obstacle waiting--you'll probably need a different cable and a cellular-capable modem to connect.

If these shortcomings of wireless connectivity haven't discouraged you, here's another: Even if you get your phone set up and properly connected to your laptop, you still may not be able to connect to your Internet service provider or other Net connection. For reasons no one can explain to me, my ISP's modems simply don't answer my incoming wireless data calls, even though America Online Inc.'s modems do.

Once you make a connection, yet another pitfall awaits. If you use AOL or a free ISP with nationwide phone numbers to access your day-to-day work or ISP mail account, you may not be able to get your mail. For security reasons, many ISPs allow access to their mail servers only if you dial in directly, rather than connecting to the ISP's mail server via the Net. If your ISP provides local dial-up numbers wherever you travel, then you don't have to worry about this.

I'm interested to hear your success stories, frustrations, and workarounds with cellular access. If you know of a wireless service, phone company, or nationwide ISP that's particularly easy to use with your laptop, send me a note at I'll publish the results in an upcoming column.

Bypass Outlook Express's Import Impasse

I archived my e-mail folders on a computer running Internet Explorer 4 and its e-mail client software, Outlook Express 4. I stored the files on a Zip disk, and the system they were created on is now long gone. The new computer has IE 5, and thus Outlook Express 5, installed on it. The problem is, I cannot get Outlook Express 5 to import my OE 4 messages. When I try to import them using File*Import*Messages*Microsoft Outlook Express 4 (see FIGURE 2), I just get this error message: 'No messages can be found in this folder or another application is running that has the required files open. Please select another folder or try closing the application that may have the files open.' It doesn't matter whether I try importing the message files directly from the Zip disk or from a folder on the hard disk. If you can solve this, I'll owe you eternally!

Rhea Stevens, Sealy, Texas

Eternity is a long, long time. But don't sweat it. This one was relatively easy--Microsoft's Knowledge Base explains the problem (see Outlook Express 5 expects that those files will be stored in a folder called Mail, and it grinds to a halt when they're not. Why? Why, why, why? After you're finished screaming, rename the folder the files are stored in as Mail (or create a new one named Mail somewhere and copy the files to it), and then repeat the import steps that you described in your letter. And here's another important item:

During the import process, you have to browse to the folder that contains the Mail folder. If you browse to the Mail folder itself, you'll get the same cryptic error message. Thank you, Microsoft.

The Knowledge Base reports a few other situations where OE 5 may balk at importing messages. If you backed up your OE 5 files to a CD-Recordable disk, the files will be read-only, even if you copy them back to a hard disk. OE 5 gives you the same helpful error message you mention when you try to import read-only files. To work around this sterling Microsoft feature, copy the files to a hard disk or other writable device, select them in Explorer, choose File*Properties, and uncheck Read-only at the bottom of the General tab.

Update Outlook Area Codes

I have a rather large Contacts list in Outlook with a lot of phone numbers. As you know, the area codes in the United States are changing faster than politicians' opinions. Is there any way to do a global find and replace for data in the Contacts' fields?

Randy Finch, Florence, Alabama

Maybe, but the problem is that area codes aren't just changing, they're splitting--you need to know which prefixes go to the new area code and which don't. DialRight Software's DialRight for Outlook 98 and DialRight for Outlook 2000 scan your contacts and make the area code changes for you automatically.

You can download a 5.82MB ad-supported demo version of each from FileWorld or from (these demo versions tell you how many of your numbers need updating, but they don't change the numbers automatically the way the commercial versions do). Pricing for the full versions is based on the size of your database and includes a year of updates. Call DialRight at 877/349-2633 for details.

Corex, the company that makes the business-card-scanning software CardScan, has a similar utility called Area Code Fix ($50) that works with CardScan 4, Act 4, Lotus Organizer 97, and Palm Desktop databases. It also includes a year of free updates. See an online demo at overview.htm.

Find files from this article at Send questions and tips to We pay $50 for published items. Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.

Take Your AOL Addresses and Run

America Online stores personal mail folders and address books in nonstandard format and offers no export options when you want to leave the service. Java programmer Duncan MacKenzie ( offers address-book and favorite-places converters and is working on a tool for extracting personal folders. To run the small converters, you need Sun's Java Runtime Environment, a multimegabyte download at

Tidy Up Web Page Errors

If you create simple Web pages by hand, chances are good that your HTML is as neat as a pin. But if you use a WYSIWYG editor, your pages are very likely to be filled with unnecessary tags, convoluted code, and outright errors that prevent them from displaying properly in some browsers. Dave Raggett's HTML Tidy freeware fixes errors, replaces complex font attributes with style sheets, and indents tags for readability. The 136KB command-line utility even straightens out Word 2000's byzantine Web formats. As lead architect of the HTML 4.0 spec, Raggett should know his tags. You can download HTML Tidy from FileWorld, or you can look for it on Raggett's site at