Web To Go Sort Of

Today's Net phones are O.K. for e-mail, but surfing is a chore

Surf on the go. That's the promise of the compact, wireless Web phones that started hitting the market in September. But that promise is far from being fulfilled. When you use these phones, be prepared for lost signals, frequent low-battery warnings, limited content, and a far-from-speedy pace of getting information. Still, wireless Web phones can be handy in a pinch when you have to have a stock quote after hours or need to receive an urgent e-mail while you're in transit.

The phones and their services are improving monthly. Some models I tried actually logged on to the Internet more quickly than my desktop and worked well in limited applications. If you want Web cell-phone access, the cost may not be much more than regular wireless service. Sprint PCS, for instance, charges $9.99 on top of the cell-phone package for 50 minutes of Web time and an additional 30 cents a minute after that. It also sells a combined plan that can be used for regular cell-phone or Web access. That plan gives 300 minutes monthly for $59.99 or up to 1,200 minutes for $179.99. Sprint offers the handsets anywhere from around $100 to $800, depending on the phone. Other carriers in the fledgling field include Nextel, Bell Atlantic, and AT&T.

The primary drawback of Web phones is the limited amount of information they are able to get--and the limited number of sites they can log on to. Most small screens display only 4 to 11 lines of information, so it's time-consuming to see the data. Also, they can't show graphics. To package information fit for these screens, sites such as Yahoo.com, ABCNews.com, Bloomberg.com, and Ameritrade.com have gotten together with phone carriers to adopt a format called Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). The format requires sites to strip out graphics and shorten stories. So far, only a handful of such sites exist.

Another problem with Web phones is that tapping in data on a keypad smaller than two square inches is a trial. A Web phone user has to press a number key with the desired letter on it until the letter appears onscreen.

If you want to type an "L," for example, you have to push the "5" key three times, then wait until the cursor moves one space to show that it's ready for the next letter. I dare you to type an e-mail that way. Software developers are working on a voice-recognition system that will do away with much of the tedious typing. Analysts and carriers say a rudimentary version may roll out in a year to 18 months.

Among Web phones I tested, the silver, 5 1/2-inch-long Qualcomm Neopoint 1000 boasts a relatively large 11-line screen. It passed a critical test--the browser was so easy to use that I got online without reading the directions. But like many of the phones, it could be confoundedly contrary. After hours of being unable to sign on to the Web, I finally shut the Neopoint off, turned it back on again, and--voila!--Web access. I still don't know what the problem was.

SLOW GOING. Even easier to use was Denso's Touchpoint dual band, which can pick up analog signals for cell-phone use in areas where digital coverage isn't good. Of the phones I tried, this one proved the most reliable for browsing as well as for calling. I could always make a call and didn't experience frozen screens or other frustrating glitches.

Another handy, though much larger, model, is Qualcomm's PDQ 800 Smart Phone. It combines a cell phone and a Palm Pilot into one unit. It can manage all your contact and scheduling data in the Palm Pilot operating system, and links up with your PC to update the info. You can use Graffiti software, so you're not restricted to using the keypad. It also isn't restricted to WAP, as are the more compact phones, so it can surf the Web using the same language--HTML--that your desktop uses, although the going is slow. Still, it can't show graphics. Instead, it displays markers where graphics go, with the title of the picture in brackets.

The phone that generates the most oohs and aahs because of its small size is the new Motorola Timeport--a silver, Web-enabled StarTac. It's not as easy to figure out as some of the others, and its screen allows only four lines. But the screen is also more recessed than the others, so it stays clear of your cheek while you phone. Other screens often come away from a call smudged with makeup or skin oil.

Motorola also makes two gadgets that offer even better solutions to wireless Web e-mail than phones: the Pagewriter 2000X and its soon-to-be released Timeport two-way pager. Featuring minute screens and tiny keyboards, each weighs only 6.7 ounces. The Pagewriter was useful for short messages, although I wouldn't want to draft a contract on it. It also offers a second nifty feature that makes up a bit for its lack of a phone function. It allows you to send an e-mail that goes to a computer, which then calls the person you've selected and reads the message in a computer-generated voice. Remember to spell difficult words phonetically, or it will trip up the machine. A test message to my girlfriend, Guillemette, came out sounding like "gilly meat." Spelling it "key ah met" got me closer to the correct pronunciation. The Pagewriter also had the most dependable signal of the devices I tested, perhaps because it runs on the SkyTel Communications satellite network instead of a cell-phone grid.

LOCATION, LOCATION. Whatever the device you choose, count on a lot of hoopla about Web telephony in coming months. Since midsummer, Sprint PCS no longer sells any other handset but Web-enabled ones. And more sites are looking into developing WAP content. But if the industry wants the technology to spread widely, it needs to increase the transmission speed. That's something companies are focused on, says Mark Desautels, chief executive of Wireless Data Forum, a Washington (D.C.) trade association. He says that in three to five years, Web phones will connect at speeds of 384 kilobits per second, about as fast as a cable modem or DSL phone line. Even before then, Web phones will be able to determine where you're calling from and provide services appropriate to your location, says Richard Siber, telecom analyst for Arthur Andersen in Boston. "I land in Los Angeles, and I want to look up restaurants," says Siber. "I go to the Yellow Pages services in my Palm. I tell it: `I only want restaurants serving Mandarin Chinese food that are within walking distance."' Try that trick on your current cell phone.

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