Novel, But Still Far From Neat O

Cell phones as data-communications tools suffer from serious design limitations

It seems like almost every day I hear about a new service that promises to dispatch critical information straight to a wireless phone. So I decided to take a look at some of these hot new offerings. What I found is an intriguing assortment of ideas that, while not quite ready for prime time, show both the promise of information at your fingertips and the serious weakness of phones as data-communications tools.

Although already common in much of the world, getting data over wireless phones is still in its infancy in the U.S. But carriers are rapidly adding data capability to their voice networks, with Sprint PCS and Nextel Communications Inc. among the most advanced companies with more-or-less national networks. Many phones that work on these networks come complete with a minibrowser for the Web from Inc. But the displays are tiny. And dial pads were made for punching in phone numbers, not typing in text and navigating through Web sites. These limitations mean that designers need to be very clever just to make it workable.

In theory, any browser-equipped phone can use any phone-ready Web site. You save a lot of button pushing, though, if your data service is supported by your phone carrier. That way the browser option appears as a top-level choice on a menu.

I tried Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Mobile 2.0 (mobile. on a Nextel phone. MSN Mobile, which is also available on the Vodafone AirTouch PLC network, is a slick service that gives access from a wireless phone to a variety of Microsoft services--Hotmail, the Expedia travel service, and Money Central. The service makes it easy to set alerts, such as when the price of a particular stock moves, or selected e-mail messages that can be sent directly to your phone.

Unfortunately, the advantage of having MSN services on the phone's built-in menus was offset by the Nextel handset's inadequate display of five lines of 16 characters. The difficulty is made worse because MSN prefaces each alert with the text "FR MSN Mobile," which fills the display's subject line. Microsoft promises to fix this.

I found MSN Mobile a lot more usable on a NeoPoint NP1000 phone with a nine-line, 22-character display and better navigation buttons. But MSN doesn't have a carrier agreement with Sprint PCS, so getting to the service meant drilling through several layers of menus.

NO CARRIER. Sprint does have a deal with Yahoo! Inc., so the phone provides easy access to mail, calendar, address book, and many other features that you can configure on My Yahoo! ( The service lacks MSN's sophisticated alerts but is very simple to use. Like MSN Mobile, the service is free, though you pay for airtime while using it.

In many ways, the most intriguing service I played with was from a startup called Inc. ( Using a technique known infelicitously as "screen scraping," Yodlee collects information from a huge variety of Web sites and reformats it for phones and other handheld devices. The sites you have selected appear on a menu when you visit the Yodlee site with your minibrowser.

Yodlee has its disadvantages. It currently has no carrier agreements. This means you must tediously enter the address using the dial pad, bookmark it, then go through several layers of menus to get back to it. But if you have a standard Internet mail account with a service provider, you can use Yodlee to view your inbox contents on a wireless device. Even then, you can't respond to or delete messages as you can with MSN and Yahoo. The part of Yodlee I liked best was also one that showed the weakness of phones as data devices.

I book most of my flights through the United Airlines Inc. Web site. Given my user ID and password, Yodlee can get my flight info from the online reservation records. On a phone browser, this appears as a jumble of text. But if the same info is sent to a Palm handheld, either wirelessly to a Palm VII or by syncing a standard Palm to a desktop PC, the flight number, itinerary, and even the reservation confirmation number show up at the proper time in my calendar. This turns a cute novelty into a true convenience.

Phones are nowhere near that convenient, and once the novelty wears off, you are soon left wondering if the hassle is worth it. Both the quality of the information and the way it is presented will improve as content providers work out deals with carriers. But the tiny displays and painful data entry imposed by phone handsets will remain a huge impediment to success.

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