Dialing Into The Wired World From Anywhere

If you like the new cordless "Net phones," just wait till next year

As Peter Nieh cruised through San Francisco in a taxi on Oct. 27, he knew the stock market was melting. Using a new breed of wireless phone that can browse Web sites, he repeatedly checked the latest damage to his portfolio. At one point, the partner in Weiss Peck & Greer LLP's venture-capital arm muttered that the Dow Jones industrial average was down 300 points. His cab driver spun around. "How can you possibly know all that?" he asked.

Soon, tapping into the Net from anywhere won't spark such surprise. AT&T, Nokia, and others are pushing new "Net phones" that help you stay dialed into the wired world as well as make phone calls, manage your calendar, and store telephone numbers. Among the early entries, the most promising are the Nokia 9000i Communicator and two telephones developed in conjunction with AT&T, Samsung Group's Duette and Mitsubishi Electric Corp.'s MobileAccess.

WEB WARRIORS. The Samsung and Mitsubishi phones are the best choices for nontechies. They're easy to use, cost $300, and give you access to information from 22 Web sites. The phones hook into the Net through AT&T's PocketNet service, which costs $30 a month on top of the regular wireless phone charges. PocketNet can't handle all Web sites, but you can access quotes from Bloomberg Online, flight arrival times from Travelocity, news headlines from ABCNews.com, and sports scores from ESPN SportsZone.

Why is PocketNet limited? Sites that participate must include a particular programming language called Handheld Device Mark-up Language (HDML) so their content can be displayed on a screen that's half the size of a credit card. Often, that means stripping out space-hogging graphics. AT&T, though, plans to add 20 more sites to its service in the next year.

The Nokia 9000i is more ambitious right out of the chute. With a screen that's four times as large as the PocketNet phones, it lets you roam the Web at will. Just punch in the correct address and--voila!

Still, there are drawbacks. The Nokia 9000i costs $1,000, and, weighing in at nearly 14 ounces, the "brick" doesn't fit comfortably in a suit-jacket pocket or a small purse. Plus, even the high-powered Nokia can be a sluggish hopper from Web site to Web site because its connection speed is a pokey 9.6 kilobits per second.

The choice really isn't between Nokia's phone or a PocketNet phone, anyway. It's between the current Net phones and those that will come out in the next year or so. Unless you absolutely need the latest tech gadget, like Nieh, wait a year, and you'll get a better Net phone for less money.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.