Options: Technologies on the Horizon

The Internet now reaches your digital phone -- without wires. But it's not the Internet you know

By now, you're probably already aware that E-mail and Web surfing are available on digital phones and other handheld devices. Well, if the prospect of watching people in restaurants and ticket lines tap away at their mobile phones to exchange E-mail, shop, or trade stocks bugs you, look at the bright side: Would you rather they were talking?

The top two tool-toys of the new millennium -- the mobile phone and the Internet -- have finally melded. Through Sprint's PCS Wireless Web service, the itty-bitty displays of properly equipped digital phones now present live Internet E-mail, news, shopping, and trading.

Sprint's service tips an iceberg of wireless Internet services now coming online not only for phones but for pagers and handheld computers as well. By 2003, according to GartnerGroup's Dataquest, 33 million people will add themselves to the ranks of those in the United States already sending and receiving E-mail and other nonvoice data -- like that airline reservation to Omaha and your sister's E-auction bid on that great Farber Bros. decanter -- wirelessly.

If you need anywhere, anytime access to E-mail and the services of the most popular Web sites (and only the most popular Web sites), Internet-connected digital phones, handheld computers, and other wireless gizmos soon to come promise powerful convenience. But don't take promises of "the power of the wireless Internet in your hand" or "Web w/o Wires" too literally. None of these devices enable you to hop onto the Web and browse around wherever you will, as you can do on a bona fide computer.

The "Mini" in the Browser

Phones equipped for Sprint's Wireless Web feature a "MiniBrowser" program. Pay close attention to the first four letters of that name.

The "browsing" available from Sprint allows you to choose from among a list of popular Web sites -- Yahoo, Amazon.com, CNN.com, and AmeriTrade, to mention a few -- that have repackaged their content in a special text-only, simplified version for display on a phone. At this writing, the list features a few hundred sites, but that number is growing steadily.

You do just about everything on the Wireless Web simply by pressing the phone's dialing buttons to make choices from text menus on the phone's display. Graphics are gone -- including the banner ads that clog many sites. Going graphics-free not only permits practical use of a phone's tiny display but also keeps performance snappy -- which is important, since you pay for Wireless Web by the minute. (See "Early Adopter," below.)

In addition to using the featured sites, Sprint users can sign up for "Web updates" -- data such as sports scores, stock prices, and auction status delivered to your phone automatically. You choose which updates you want to receive from the Sprint PCS site or from the site where the news originates (such as Yahoo Mobile). Unlike Wireless Web, Web updates require no special phone; all Sprint PCS users can sign up for them.

But How Do I Type?

On the wireless Web you occasionally have to do something other than choose from menus. Composing messages, telling Amazon.com which book to find, or selecting a stock all require typing text. And that's when an Internet phone's biggest drawback becomes most obvious.

For activities requiring text entry (such as composing E-mail messages or adding a speed-dial name), each dialing button has four characters assigned to it; for example, press the 2 button once to type a, twice for b, thrice for c, and four times for 2 . Obviously, this is not the means by which you would want to ask Amazon.com to find Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). But it's tolerable for short search terms, stock symbols, and boilerplate replies such as "Thx 4 msg. Will call u."

There's a stopgap to the text trouble: you can buy a cable ($100 to $200) to connect Wireless Web-enabled phones to a Palm or Windows CE handheld computer or to the standard serial port in a notebook (or desktop) PC. The phone then functions as a wireless modem, enabling the computer to dial up any Internet provider. That's not as perfect a solution as it sounds: current wireless technology limits the connection speed to 14Kb, one-quarter the speed of a regular dial-up 56Kb connection and pretty poky for Web surfing -- though adequate for E-mail. But the pitch is that users can do much of their work from the phone alone and need to resort to the cable scenario only rarely.

Limitations notwithstanding, it's surprising how much one can actually do on these downsized sites through the phone alone. Yahoo, for example, offers access to all its services (other than Web searches), including E-mail, a personal scheduling service called Calendar, and Web updates of scores, auctions, and stock prices. When your E-mail and calendar are on the Yahoo portal, you can access them from any computer (notebook, desktop, Palm, or Windows CE) that has Web access and from your mobile phone. Shopping sites generally offer catalog searches and full ordering capability -- though without graphics, of course, you buy sight unseen.

More Handheld Net Coming

At this writing, Sprint Wireless Web is the only nationwide carrier offering anything approaching true Internet content over a telephone, although a few regional digital-phone companies (like Bell Atlantic Mobile) are rolling out similar Internet phone services. Some other telecom carriers provide limited sorts of wireless Internet-based services. GTE Wireless and BellSouth Mobility, for example, both let you compose a short text message on a Web site or in an Internet E-mail program and then send that message to appear on the display of a GTE or a BellSouth Mobility subscriber who pays for the optional text-messaging service. BellSouth customers can also get automatic news updates from CNN, similar to Sprint's Web updates. But is all this the same thing as getting the Internet on your phone? Hardly.

Other devices also provide their own versions of Web access to a limited number of sites. Some new digital pager models from Motorola and other manufacturers also access Web-portal content and retrieve E-mail from portals. And the Palm VII Organizer can connect to Palm's own Palm.Net wireless Internet service to retrieve live Web content and send and receive text messages. But just like Sprint's Wireless Web, Palm.Net doesn't let Palm VII users wander the entire Web. Instead, Palm users can access only a certain number of sites (about 130, at press time) that employ a "Web-clipping" application. The program delivers selected data to the user in a format that the Palm VII can display.

Of course, it's appealing that you can access Internet services wirelessly at all. But today the lack of flexibility afforded to wireless aficionados is the biggest drawback to these services. At this moment, your choices are pretty limited. If you choose a Sprint phone, you get Wireless Web. If you choose Palm, you get Palm.Net.

Do I Need It?

When it comes to portable communications and the Internet, the "Do I need it?" question is moot. These things really come down to "Do I want it?" And you already know the answer to that, don't you?

But seriously, how useful are wireless portal services? Well, as they're now configured, these services deliver the greatest value to subscribers who already use a portal as their E-mail hub and restrict their Web surfing mainly to such Ã"bersites as Amazon.com or CNN -- at least when they're on the road. If you're dependent on your ISP E-mail account (not a portal) and you really need to surf esoteric sites, wireless portals don't offer you much.

Consider coverage, too, when you're deciding whether to plunge into wireless Internet. Although Sprint's national PCS network covers all U.S. metro areas, many rural areas are not included. If you already subscribe to a digital-voice plan, like Sprint PCS or Bell Atlantic Mobile's SingleRate, you're probably aware that if you travel outside the digital service area, you can continue to chat, thanks to "roaming" agreements that send your call through the networks of other carriers. But Sprint's Wireless Web functions only within the smaller confines of Sprint's all-digital network, cutting out when you stray into roaming regions. Similarly, the Palm.Net network covers more than 260 metro areas but leaves many locations between the cities unserved. (You can examine coverage maps on the www.SprintPCS.com and www.PalmNet.com sites.)

More important, watch for an industry association called the WAP Forum made up of more than 200 companies. The group, which includes every heavy hitter in communications and digital hardware, has developed Wireless Application Protocol, a new global specification that will standardize the way wireless devices exchange and display voice and data. Already in use in Europe and Japan and set to explode in the U.S. market this year, WAP defines a new language -- WML (wireless markup language) -- for creating Web pages intended for use by wireless devices.

What does this mean to you? A variety of digital-phone makers, including Nokia and Ericsson, are building so-called "WAP-enabled" devices that are part phone, part personal digital assistant. When they hit the United States this year (priced at around $500), these hybrid handhelds should be able to display any Web page that's been translated into the new language. To get the goodies from WAP, you must be holding a WAP device -- meaning that virtually every U.S. user of an Internet phone at this writing will need a new phone (pardon, new device).

The full transition to WAP will take several years. During that time companies like Spyglass and Digital Paths are delivering software that automatically converts everyday HTML Web sites into WML. The software promises to enable WAP users to see any Web site online, including the millions of pages that may not have been retooled in wireless-friendly WML.

If you're ready to run out this instant to visit Mel, the take-no-prisoners electronics salesman ("Want the extended warranty on that, pal?"), you're probably also the type who'll be drooling over sexy new WAP devices by year's end. By then, your sexy pre-WAP communicator may seem as obsolete as a CB radio. You may want to hold on to your money until the new toys arrive.

Ned Snell is a freelance writer living in Florida. He is the author of 16 books, including Teach Yourself the Internet in 24 Hours , Third Edition (Sams, 1999).

Who Are the Players, and What's the Cost?

Wireless Internet service is sold in the same sorts of mind-twisting packages in which voice services are sold, although minute for minute it's more expensive.

For example, with Sprint, $50 will get you 500 voice-only minutes, and $60 will purchase 300 minutes that you can use for both voice and Wireless Web.

The information below was accurate at press time, but prices in this market change rapidly. Check with providers for current details, and watch for discounts and special offers, which are common.


Internet-Ready Phones

Digital phones compatible with Sprint Wireless Web start at around $130 and are available from several manufacturers. You can get them in all-digital or dual-band models. Major makers include:

NeoPoint : 858-458-2800
Ericsson : 800-374-2776
Motorola (phones and pagers) : 800-453-0920
Nokia : 888-665-4228
Qualcomm : 800-349-4188

Palm Computers

Palm Inc. : 800-881-7256
Palm VII Organizer: $500 (street)


Sprint PCS Wireless Web : Monthly plans range from $60 for 300 minutes (combo of voice and Internet) to $180 for 1,200 minutes. All such plans also include 200 Web updates. Additional minutes cost 25¢ to 30¢ each, depending on the plan, and additional Web updates are 10¢ each. You can add 50 minutes of data and 50 Web updates for another $10 to your existing voice plan of $30. (No matter how you work it out, adding data to the mix increases the per-minute cost. Sprint's twist of plan options can make that hard to notice.) Finally, you may also sign up for a voice-only plan, purchase no Wireless Web plan, and still use the Wireless Web as needed for 39¢ a minute. (You must purchase a compatible phone for any Wireless Web; Web updates may be received on any phone used on Sprint PCS.)

Palm.Net : Three plans are available, all tying cost to the number of "transactions" performed per month. A transaction is one message, one stock quote, one score, and so on. The basic $10 plan includes 80 transactions. For $25, you get 240 transactions. Up it to $40, and you can tick away 480 transactions.


What's the business benefit of tapping the Internet through a telephone? Well, have you heard about the guy who started a company while riding an airport courtesy bus?

Howard Gerson, president and co-owner of Certified Safety Inc., a 200-employee Kansas City­based maker of first-aid supplies, was itching for E-mail from a business partner in Israel. Gerson saw getting that message and posting a reply pronto as a vital relationship volley in founding a new "M-commerce" (that's "M" for mobile) venture to be co-owned by Gerson, his family, and TeleVend, a one-year-old, Jerusalem-based company that supplies network services and applications to the vending-machine industry. But by the morning on which Gerson was packing up his family for a trip, the missive from the Land of Milk and Honey hadn't arrived.

After dropping his family at the airport terminal, parking the car, and boarding the courtesy bus to ride back to the terminal, Gerson connected to Sprint's Wireless Web service through his NeoPoint 1000 digital phone. He opened the Yahoo portal from the phone's MiniBrowser menu, retrieved his Yahoo E-mail -- and breathed a sigh of relief. The message he'd been waiting for had finally arrived. Using the phone's keypad, he quickly replied.

Gerson says that the exchange -- with "no cables connected, on a bus in the middle of Kansas" -- was a critical step in the formation of Wirca Inc., which will develop and market wireless cash-transaction technologies. Gerson says Wirca's products will make it possible, for example, to pick up a hamburger and fries at the local fast-food palace without handing over cash or a credit card -- the transaction will take place automatically, wirelessly, as you drive through.

Admitting that text entry is cumbersome, Gerson says it's manageable enough for brief responses. For more full-featured E-mailing, he hooks his phone to his notebook PC through the optional cable and wirelessly dials his regular Internet provider. That comes in handy not only on the road, says Gerson, but also at home, where having four kids can make the availability of an open phone line "a challenge."

Tapping into the Web solely from his phone, Gerson has dipped into the MiniBrowser's other offerings. He has made wireless transactions on AmeriTrade's site and recently ordered a book from Amazon.com during a lull at a breakfast meeting. Though he has been a Yahoo portal customer for two years and an avid user of Yahoo mail, Gerson doesn't manage his schedule on the portal, preferring to keep his calendar in his phone's built-in, off-line scheduling application.

Such phone features, along with the NeoPoint's large (for a phone) display, blur the boundaries between mobile phones and personal digital assistants. The blur has come far enough for Gerson; a longtime Palm user, he has abandoned his PDA in favor of his phone.