The Ripening Of The Wireless Web

Improvements are on the way

The mobile Net. It's the next big thing, the force driving the biggest mergers in history, Europe's big chance to weigh in on the Web....So are you mobile-Net-surfing yet? Not likely. Make your way through airports, train stations, and cafes across Europe, where mobile phones are more common than even cigarettes, and you'll notice that when people pull out their phones, it's almost always for old-fashioned yakking.

Why the delay? First, following the rollout of wireless Internet services last fall, there was a severe shortage of so-called WAP phones: machines able to surf via Wireless Access Protocol. Well into this year, Nokia was still ramping up production of its 7110, the only up-to-date WAP phone on the market. There simply weren't enough to go around. What's more, even buyers of the 7110 were using it mostly to talk, because their phone companies were painfully slow to offer interesting and easy-to-use WAP services. No surprise there: Why should telecoms work around the clock to create applications for a market that didn't own the right phones?

That impasse is now easing: A half-dozen new WAP phones will be coming on the European market this summer. They range from normal-looking phones with WAP enhancements to tiny, fold-open computer-phones with full Palm-type organizers. At the same time, telephone companies are making it far easier to surf from the new machines. Most are beginning to offer subscription packages, which include phones already configured for the Web (a vital service, since programming these little gadgets can be a nightmare). Now, from Madrid to London, you can duck into a phone store and emerge in 10 minutes with the Internet pulsing in your hand.

But is that something you want? Truth be told, the mobile Net in Europe is still an early-adopters' market. This means that for at least the next few months, its popularity will be limited to gadget lovers--people who are willing to spend long moments pecking at teensy keys to squint at news on a tiny screen, even when the same story is available in the paper on the next cafe table.

The rest of us will likely stay on the sidelines until services improve and prices drop. Information creeps along at 9.8 kilobits per second. Worse, to access the mobile Net, users in Europe must still dial in to an Internet access number. This means that a three-minute WAP call to check out Frankfurt weather can cost as much as $1, depending on the callers' subscription rates. That's a lot of money to find out if it's raining in Germany. Sometimes dial-up connections can even lead to financial catastrophe. On a France Telecom test phone, we failed one afternoon to turn off an Internet connection and left the phone on all night. A 16-hour mistake like that one could cost a careless consumer $250.

Improvements should come later this year. Already, phone companies are goosing their systems to move closer to the speeds of standard computer modems. And by late this year, they'll be installing new data networks called General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). These, like the popular Imode system in Japan, will permit users to send and receive data whenever the phone is on--no dial-up connection needed. With GPRS, subscribers will be charged for packets of data shipped, not by minutes used.

For now, the only question is to WAP or not to WAP. Since most of the new phones coming out this summer will be WAP-equipped, your next phone is likely to be a Web-surfer whether you choose to log on or not. Is it worth bothering? Maybe so. The most useful function on the phone for a business traveler may be an e-mail link.

A CLICK AWAY? It's worth shopping around. Most local phone companies offer their own e-mail services. Check which ones make it easy to respond to messages with one or two clicks. This is key. Typing in long Web addresses on the phone is sloppy and slow. Also, some companies make it easy to access outside portals such as Yahoo! This provides a handy backup e-mail system, one that can be in sync with your plugged-in computer.

Perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding mobile phones is the price. In nearly every market, with the exceptions of Finland and Italy, phone companies lure users with subsidized handsets, then confound them with a dizzying array of subscription tariffs. Confusion aside, you can bet that if you're signing up for a top-of-the-line WAP phone such as the Nokia 7110 or the Ericsson R320, you're going to be reimbursing the phone company, one way or another, for the roughly $450 price. The bigger palmtop phones could cost twice as much.

For serious road warriors, these big communicators--which marry palmtop applications with Web phones--may be the best bet. The granddaddy in this group is the Nokia 9110, whose first version was launched just three years ago--the mastodon days of the mobile Internet. Like the Palm Pilot, it synchronizes contact lists and agendas with those in a personal computer--though it's more likely to take 10 minutes than the Palm's 10 seconds.

For months, mobile Web surfers have had little choice beyond the Nokia 7110, an elegant phone that's easy to figure out. But now, lots of other phones are pouring into the market. Perhaps the most alluring is the Siemens S35i, which is smaller than the Nokia and zips cleanly onto the Net.

The software is a bit complex, though. The Philips Xenium is easier to use and boasts extended battery life, but it won't be available with WAP until September.

That may seem like a long time to wait to log on to the mobile Internet. But then again, what's the hurry? It might not hurt to enjoy one last summer in the garden before the mobile Net plunks the world--and your work--right into the picnic basket.

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