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Virtually wireless

art
[Times art: Jeff Goertzen]

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 7, 2000


Wireless Internet is here but leaves a lot to be desired. Small, slow and limited describe it, though developers say the technology is improving.

Suddenly, the Web has become a traveling companion. In ads and on billboards, phone companies say the Web is ready to go to the beach, to the mall, in the car, anywhere you are.

But the highly touted wireless Web that's available on cell phones, pagers and devices such as the Palm organizer is not yet a robust road warrior. Especially not on the phone.

It's small (four to six lines on screen at a time), it's slow (connection speeds matching those of desktop PC modems from, say, 1995), it's limited (not all sites are accessible), and it's maddening (a phone dialpad is definitely not a substitute for a keyboard).

Bob Egan, an analyst for market research firm Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn., described this first wave of the technology as "immature devices with immature networks delivering immature services, much like the Internet as we knew it in 1990."

Virtually useless
A monthlong test of wireless Web shows the technology has a long, long way to go.
The wireless Web, though, is being called the next big thing in technology. "Within two to three years, a person's first experience (on the Web) is likely to be through a phone and not a PC," Egan said.

So phone companies are rushing out services, such as AT&T's PocketNet, Sprint's Wireless Web and Verizon Wireless. As with the birth of many technologies, growing pains are evident.

Companies use different technological standards, so a phone programmed to work with one wireless technology can't be used on a network that employs another technology. Additionally, the lack of a single standard means more sophisticated Internet services can't be offered.

To help bridge these problems, more than 500 companies formed the Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP, Forum (www.wapforum.org) to create a technical format that allows any WAP-enabled phone to work with any of the transmission formats.

Only about 24,000 Web sites are WAP-enabled and accessible to wireless devices, according to Pinpoint.com, a search technology company. More sites are on the way, but some experts wonder how the phone companies or the Web sites will make money off devices that show only text and are too small to display ads.

The industry says technological problems will be solved, content will be available and consumers will follow.

About 100-million of the world's 500-million mobile phones in use by year-end will be capable of Internet access, according to ARC, a London consulting group. It estimates 300-million of 900-million wireless phones will be Internet-ready within three years.

Unlike the Europeans and Japanese, who have embraced cellular technology, Americans are taking a more cautious approach, according to a survey of 1,000 people by Rasmussen Research (www.portraitofamerica.com): Twenty-eight percent said they would use a wireless phone, Palm or pager to get news, stock quotes or sports scores, while 58 percent said they wouldn't.

"Among wealthier Americans, the business leaders, it's become a trendy topic," said Scott Rasmussen, president of the company.

And that brings up costs. Companies such as Sprint and Verizon charge a monthly fee of $7 to $10 for the data services, as well as per-minute fees for surfing and talking above a set number offered with a plan. For people who buy an AT&T Web-enabled phone, the company gives unlimited free access to 40 information and commerce sites. Adding e-mail costs $7 a month and a premium plan with e-mail and more Web sites runs $15 a month, but none has a per-minute fee.

The Rasmussen survey results also indicated frustration with the technology: Thirty-five percent of those who have tried wireless devices say they rarely or never use them again.

"I don't think a phone makes a good e-mail device," said Egan, the Gartner Group consultant. "How friendly is a phone to type in? It isn't and likely never will be." Egan says he sometimes responds to e-mail he gets on his phone with a call because it saves time.

Other services, such as obtaining driving directions, also can be exasperating. Egan once tried to get directions to his parents' house by using his cell phone, a process that ended with a police officer checking to see what he was doing parked by the road for so long.

For people on the go who need basic information in a hurry, the wireless Web can work to check flight times and gates, stock quotes or movie schedules.

But those who think they'll get the same Web experience on a phone as they do on a desktop computer are sure to be disappointed, particularly with the hype the industry is generating about the services. "They're underdelivering based on current expectations," Egan said.

Scott Goldman, chief executive of the WAP Forum, agrees that some people may have had higher expectations for the technology than what they receive. It isn't intended to replace the desktop PC, he says, but to serve as an extension for it.

"Like any other first version or 1.0 industry, WAP is not as good today as it will be tomorrow," Goldman said. "When you look at what it can do, what it should provide, most people are happy with it."

Growth will come from early adopters, people who rush out to get the latest and greatest as soon as it hits the market. The U.S. consumer market will grow as people see how the Japanese and Europeans have embraced it, Goldman said. But, Goldman says the area he thinks is going to explode is in business applications that allow employees to access corporate databases from mobile phones.

"You're going to see a bunch of stuff by the end of this year," Goldman said. "One thing you're going to see is a tremendous number of applications. WAP has three times the number of developers as the Palm, and there's already a huge number of applications and content that's in the pipeline. That's going to address the content issue."

As transmission speed improves, Goldman said, consumers can expect to see graphics, video and other enhancements while surfing.

- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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