Until recently, about all you could do with a wireless phone was make a call. Even as the capabilities of handsets grew, you were stuck with whatever functions your wireless carrier put into the phone. You couldn't add applications, and customization was mostly limited to a choice of ring tones.
That's changing fast. In addition to color displays, faster processors, and more memory, the latest handsets let you download software programs and information services to your phone. The market currently consists mainly of ring tones, screen savers, and games. Other services, however, are becoming more widely available, including mapping and directions, traffic information, e-mail access, sports news, and restaurant and movie guides. A company called Digital Orchid (www.digitalorchid.com/nascartogo) offers a novel service with real-time information about NASCAR, including a constantly updated leaderboard during races. Such programs and services are sold outright or as a subscription and can be charged either to the phone bill or a credit card. Corporations also are showing interest in creating custom phone applications for their mobile workers, such as one that lets field workers for a mining company remotely monitor seepage from settling points.
In addition to the ability to customize, these new services work much better than the unsuccessful initial attempt to provide information to handsets using miniature Web browsers. The response to queries is generally much faster, and the programs take advantage of the phones' advanced features, such as using color screens to display maps.
Writing programs for phones is much more complicated than for PCs or for Palm or Pocket PC handhelds. Designing software customized for the dozens of handset types isn't practical. And carriers, worried about tech-support problems and applications that could cause trouble on their networks, are fussy about what they will allow.
Sun Microsystems (SUNW ) and Qualcomm (QCOM ) have developed rival systems that address both problems. Sun's Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) provides a common programming environment for many different handsets while preventing downloaded applications from doing anything bad to the built-in phone software or the network. Leading U.S. carriers delivering J2ME programs include Sprint PCS (PCS ), Nextel (NXTL ), AT&T Wireless (AWE ), and Cingular. Qualcomm's BREW, named in self-conscious imitation of Java, offers similar capabilities, but with a twist. Qualcomm runs BREW as a turnkey service for carriers, including Verizon Wireless and Alltel (AYZ ). Customers buy downloads or subscriptions from BREW, and Qualcomm passes the billing information to the carriers -- with Qualcomm keeping a bit of the payment for its trouble.
I found Verizon's BREW-based Get It Now service the slickest offering. I tried it with the Motorola T720 and LG 4400 handsets. You go to the Get It Now menu, choose your apps or subscriptions, and check out. Games typically can be purchased outright for $4.99. Information services are sold by subscription. Vindigo's local directions, dining-and-entertainment information service costs $2.99 a month, while Dow Jones's WSJ.COM news service costs $3.99 monthly. The cost, plus the airtime used downloading data, automatically appear on your monthly bill.
Nextel's J2ME service, which I tried on a Motorola i95cl handset, is clunkier. Although most applications are downloaded over the air to your phone, you have to select them on Nextel's Web site, and your purchases are billed separately to a credit card. Nextel offers a number of free programs, but you must check carefully to see which programs work with which handsets.
BREW may appeal to carriers, but the Java approach should be more attractive to enterprises that want to get their own applications onto handsets carried by mobile workers. That's because most corporations already have Java development expertise in-house and because they see little need to pay Qualcomm to distribute their custom BREW applications. In most cases, however, companies will still have to work with carriers to get the applications into phones.
Small displays and the difficulty of data entry will always limit how much phones can do. Even given the limits, the humble handset can become a game platform and information appliance once you can get the right software into it.
By Stephen H. Wildstrom