It's hardly a secret that the wireless Web has been a flop so far. No wonder: The first generation of mobile data phones and services introduced last year suffered from a lethal mix of immature technology and vastly overinflated expectations. People lured by ads promising them the Net in the palm of their hands struggled instead with pokey connections, cramped screens, and paltry content. Today, only a few million people in Europe and the U.S. regularly use wireless application protocol (WAP) services.
Behind the scenes, however, phone companies, handset makers, and software engineers have been steadily bolstering the technology behind the wireless Web. The first fruits of that labor are coming to market, and they greatly improve the mobile data experience. Being in Europe gave me the chance to try out the new Siemens S45, the first phone to offer a better browser and other software enhancements from the inventor of WAP, Openwave Systems Inc. (OPWV ) Equally important, the S45, which costs about $325, uses faster wireless technology known as general packet radio service, or GPRS. This technology is better known as 2.5G, a waystation between today's networks and the media-rich 3G, or third-generation, systems expected in 2003.
LIVING COLOR. The combination of a snappier network and a crisper interface makes for a big improvement. The experience still is nothing like surfing the Net on a PC; the screen isn't much larger than a postage stamp, and the selection of content remains limited. But the S45, whose enhancements will likely show up in other phones and networks this summer, could be the harbinger of real benefits from anytime, anywhere connectivity.
The better network is the crucial difference. Until now, cellular systems handled data traffic in the same way they handled a voice call, gobbling up an entire circuit just to transmit a few bits. When you clicked on a link or switched from one WAP site to another, the phone had to dial a different number--which often took 40 seconds or more. What good is that when you need an instant traffic update?
New GPRS networks are up and running in major European countries, and they should hit the U.S. in 2002. These networks use advanced technology that separates voice and data into separate channels. The benefit: As with broadband PC connections, the data channel is "always on," meaning bits flow back and forth continuously. In my tests, that meant jumping from a tennis story to a train schedule as quick as a wink. Linking from one WAP page to another seldom took longer than 10 seconds on the S45; it often took three times longer with an older Siemens S35 mobile phone that kept having to redial the network. Likewise, when I retrieved my Yahoo! e-mail, the S45 typically fetched a message in 10 seconds, vs. the S35's 30 seconds. Stock quotes? Including tapping out the request, one minute on the new phone, vs. two on the old.
OpenWave has also made modest improvements to the user interface. Higher-resolution graphics allow more lines of text and words on the sharper screen. Navigation is somewhat better: It took me 22 clicks and scrolls to fetch a stock quote, vs. 26 on the older phone. The new browser also supports color screens, which should show up from Siemens and others before the end of this year, making information more legible. But it's still too difficult to find your way around online, due to limited menus and occasional inconsistencies in the software. Sometimes, for instance, the "Back" icon appeared on the left side of the screen and sometimes on the right. Dumb stuff.
No question, the arrival of GPRS and better software is a big improvement. Now it's up to content providers to devise sexy new sites with radically simpler interfaces. After the WAP fiasco, mobile operators will have to work even harder to get customers excited about the wireless Web.
Steve Wildstrom is on vacation.