Web Phones: Now You're Talking

The latest batch are especially useful as laptop modems. But a few glitches persist

The cellular data drought, which has left Americans way behind the rest of the world in their ability to use mobile phones as versatile communications devices, may be coming to an end. On Sept. 20, Sprint PCS Group (www.sprintpcs.com) dramatically expanded the availability of mobile communications in the U.S. by offering data capability on its national network.

The new services consist of two pieces. The one that will get the most attention--and certainly the most advertising hype from Sprint PCS--is the ability to browse the Internet and send and receive e-mail directly from a new breed of so-called Web phones. But the part that I think most mobile professionals will find far more useful is the ability to use a PCS phone as a wireless modem for laptops. Pricing ranges from a $9.95 monthly add-on to existing Sprint accounts to a $180 plan that gives 1,200 monthly minutes of voice or data airtime.

BUYING OPTIONS. Many new wireless phones, ranging from the $400 multifunction NeoPoint 1000 to the $100 Qualcomm QCP-1960 Thin Phone, can be used as modems. You just connect the phone to a serial port on your laptop (infrared and universal serial bus options would be welcome improvements) and run the free Sprint software that lets Windows recognize your phone as a modem and creates "wireless" copies of any dial-up networking connections. Once it's done, you can get to your Internet service provider just as if you were connected to a phone line. The nominal speed is 14,400 bits per second, though the effective speed can drop below that if you have a weak signal. Web browsing at that speed is painful, but it's fine for e-mail.

The main thing that keeps this system from being as good as the wireless data service in Europe (BW--Aug. 9) is spotty network coverage. Sprint's urban service is generally good, though there is none, for example, in Princeton, N.J., Augusta, Me., or Albuquerque. Outside urban areas, service is scarce, and even within them there are frustrating dead spots. For example, I got an excellent signal inside the terminal at Detroit Wayne County Metropolitan Airport but none at the Hertz lot.

To test the new Web browsing and messaging services, I used a phone from NeoPoint (www.neopoint.com). The NeoPoint 1000, a slender 5 1/2-inches-long, 6.4-ounce phone features a mini-browser, e-mail program, and an address book, calendar, and to-do list. The 11-line, 24-character liquid-crystal display works well only on sites that have been specially formatted for limited displays. The available sites are the usual mix of headlines from ABC and Yahoo!, forecasts from the Weather Channel, stock quotes, and flight information from TheTrip.com. The Phone.com browser lets you visit any Web site, but most pages are unreadable.

There are actually two e-mail services: the pager-like PCS short message service and Internet mail. Both are hampered by the difficulty of entering data using a phone keypad. NeoPoint uses a technology called T9 from Tegic Communications that guesses, mostly successfully, whether you want, say, an m, n, or o when you push 6. It helps, but not enough.

The limitations of the phone package also hinder the organizer functions. The phone syncs to a variety of desktop contact managers using Puma Technology's IntelliSync software. But it ought to warn you when you're about to overwhelm the phone's memory, not just dump data until it runs out of room. My contact list only made it to the Ms. Navigation of contacts, calendar, and to-do list is also awkward compared to a device like a Palm handheld.

Although phone-based organizers are improving, the limitations of display and data entry in a unit small enough to make an acceptable phone may discourage the use of all-in-one devices. I would prefer to use my Palm V or a Windows CE device--or any other handheld--to enter and display data and have the phone tucked away in my pocket or briefcase as a wireless modem. This sounds like a Buck Rogers fantasy, but the short-range radio communications technology, known as Blue Tooth, is under active development and could show up in cell phones and other consumer products by the end of next year.

My experiments with wireless data communications have convinced me that this technology can really make life easier for mobile professionals. The bad news is that the U.S. still lags behind the rest of the world, the upside is that the situation is improving and the new devices and services hitting the market will help close the gap.

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