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Handheld Web

Handheld organizers merged with cell phones bring the wireless Web closer to reality. But their slow Internet connections and awkward sizes won’t persuade consumers to use them.

By DAVE GUSSOW and JULES ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


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OmniSky offers its online services though AT&T and supports handheld devices such as the Palm V. The wireless modem attaches to the back of the Palm, costs $299 and brings the handheld’s weight up to about 8.5 ounces.
The wireless Web wars are becoming hand-to-hand combat.

Handheld organizers such as Palm devices, the Handspring Visor and the Pocket PC seem to be the gadget of choice this year as the industry pushes the idea of accessing the Web wherever you go.

Despite the industry hype, Web access through cell phones has been greeted by an almost universal yawn. They have tiny screens showing little data, poor connections and maddening keypads for typing e-mail.

The handheld organizers overcome two of those barriers with larger screens and handwriting-recognition capabilities that make writing easier. And companies such as Handspring and Sprint are combining cell phones and organizers into single devices to give consumers the best of both worlds.

But, as Tech Times reported last year, the wireless Web suffers from other technological ills: It's slow, though transmission speeds have increased slightly. It's unreliable, with too many attempts to log on that end in "timed out" messages. It's not really everywhere, because not all areas are served. And it has access to a limited number of Web sites.

Undaunted by our criticism, AT&T set up a new test with one of its partners, OmniSky, to show us that the wireless Web can work. Sprint lent us its TP3000 cell phone/organizer combination. We also tried an iPAQ Pocket PC from Compaq.

Our conclusion: One day, the wireless Web will be a good thing. It has improved in recent months, but not enough to make it a worthwhile investment for most consumers.

OmniSky

OmniSky, which delivers its services over AT&T's network, has its hands full: It offers service with Palm V devices, Handspring Visors and Hewlett-Packard Jornadas, and the company says it will expand to other devices and platforms.

We tried out OmniSky on the Palm Vx, and it showed promise. The Palm was easy to set up and synch with a home PC in about 20 minutes. A $299 modem with a retractable antenna attaches to the back of the organizer, so the whole package weighs about 8.5 ounces.

Depending on the model, it can cost up to $700 for the organizer and modem, though rebates are available on the modem with some service plans. It costs $39.95 a month for unlimited access.

It connected on the first try, and the e-mail initially seemed to be its killer app. Palm's Graffiti writing software easily recognized even the most challenging scrawl. But the more we used it, the more challenging it became to send and receive e-mail, with servers sometimes down for as long as four hours.

The service has access to about 1,000 OmniSky-formatted Web sites, and users can set up an on-screen menu using their home PC. But sites enabled for wireless devices don't have the depth or breadth of a regular Web site. For example, even though Yahoo is an OmniSky partner, we couldn't access an e-mail account there, despite repeated tries. Nor would it show e-mail sent in the Web's Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, format. One advantage is OmniSky lets you send e-mail using an address other than the one it provides, such as the one you use on your home PC.

The current version of the OmniSky browser does not support cookies, those items of information that Web sites put on your computer to keep track of who you are.

Sometimes we could get news headlines and fuller versions of stories; other times we could get only headlines. Attempts to find restaurant listings in Orlando proved fruitless. (The good news: Heavy use during a daylong visit to a theme park didn't drain the batteries.)

Connection success was better than our experience last summer, when we often waited 15 minutes or more before getting a timed-out message on the AT&T PocketNet phone. We had fewer occasions when it wouldn't complete the connection, and faster notification when attempts timed out.

Though the company says it's expanding its service area, it pays to check the Web site (www.omnisky.com) or ask about availability. It's not yet in Tallahassee or an area north of Pittsburgh, for example, as we discovered during visits to those areas.

Compaq’s iPAQ

The $499 iPAQ 3600 series from Compaq is the latest incarnation of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. In marketing terms, it's known as a Pocket PC. When combined with the iPAQ, it's the first really usable combination of this operating system and hardware.

The iPAQ is slightly larger than a Palm and boasts a color screen that's ultra-crisp and works well in bright sunlight. A sensor alters the screen brightness based on lighting around it, which is great for extending the battery life.

To make the iPAQ a wireless device, a PC card expansion jacket is required. This $150 addition effectively doubles the battery life. But it also almost doubles the depth and weight of the machine.

The jacket basically is a plastic sleeve that fits around the iPAQ while leaving the screen visible. It has a PC Card slot at the top and a power socket at the bottom. The iPAQ's cradle will charge the organizer and expansion pack at the same time, unlike the OmniSky, where the organizer and modem have separate chargers.

The wireless PC Card modem works at a modemlike speed, but the experience is better than with OmniSky because the iPAQ uses a version of Internet Explorer as a browser. That means a site doesn't have to be specifically formatted for a wireless device to be viewed.

Pocket Internet Explorer does a good job of sizing images so that they're usable on the small screen. However, if a Web site incorrectly detects the browser, the site will not work.

Pocket PC's e-mail is similar to Microsoft's Outlook Express. But you have to provide your own e-mail address if you connect using the AT&T network because none comes with the service. Some Internet service providers allow you to send mail after you authenticate with their servers but most do not. Because of unsolicited e-mail, or spam, this could be an uphill battle.

You pay $55 a month for unlimited access.

The Sprint combo phone

Sprint's TP3000 may look like just a cell phone, but flipping up the keypad reveals a compact personal organizer.

The $400 phone is a light 6.2 ounces. The organizer is easy to navigate and has an onscreen keyboard to tap out e-mail with a stylus, which is tucked away in a slot on the back of the phone.

It doesn't overcome all problems with the wireless Web, and it isn't flawless. The organizer is basic and includes features such as a calendar, to-do lists, memos and address book. Palm and Handspring aficionados might find it too thin on those functions.

The screen is about two-thirds the size of a Palm's, which cramps the amount of data that can be shown. The touch screen didn't always respond to the stylus, forcing multiple attempts, sometimes with additional pressure, to get action.

As with a lot of gadgets these days, it combines functions so you can use both devices at the same time. It can be used as a speakerphone while you use the organizer. Having the contact list stored allows touch dialing from the screen.

It performed fairly well as a phone. Most people we called reported the quality to be acceptable, though it occasionally broke up. It was far better than our test with AT&T's PocketNet last summer and an improvement as well on an unhappy experience we had with Ericsson's RX280 Web phone.

When it came to the wireless Web, the Sprint phone worked more often than not. We had fewer access problems than with other devices we tried, though confusing menus sometimes bogged us down.

Speed is a problem, with wireless Web devices promising top transmission rates only about a third that of 56k dial-up modems common on home computers. The practical effect: It took almost 10 minutes to sort about 15 e-mail messages in a Hotmail account, a process that would have taken only a couple of minutes at home.

And those minutes count against whatever calling plan you signed up for. Go over the time limit, and the meter is running.

However, compared with carrying a bulky laptop, finding a phone jack and booting the machine up, this could be a worthwhile trade-off for many people.

Sprint and Palm will roll out services this year that combine their functions: kits to connect the organizer to a cell phone, a smart phone for voice and data and a wireless modem to use with the organizer.

- Dave Gussow is the Times' personal technology editor. Times correspondent Jules Allen writes the weekly Site Seeing column. Contact them at techtimes@sptimes.com.

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