Good Tech Is Simple Tech

When technophiles sneer at my inability to configure a Web phone, they actually prove my point

By Stephen Baker

The mail has been brutal. Our readers -- friendly folks like you -- have been complaining loudly about me. One editor of a cell-phone Web site in Britain dared to call me the s-word: stupid.

Why all the fuss? I confessed to having trouble programming a cell phone for e-mail and Web surfing. Trouble, did I say? I was ripping out the thinning remains of my hair. My correspondents complained that a reviewer should be absolutely fluent in POP codes, ports, access numbers, Web addresses, and the other 15 or 20 arcane details that had me angrily punching tiny buttons and sifting madly through tangled cables. Their thinking: If a reviewer can't figure out how to operate a phone, dump him for another who can.

My opinion, of course, is that most of the nearly 1 billion cell-phone users in the world are humble sorts like me. If I'm stumped by a phone, I won't be alone. And my critics? They probably reconfigured spreadsheets for Apple Newtons. I wouldn't be surprised if they know how to program their VCRs. These are very smart people. Hard stuff is easy for them. But that intelligence may well blind them to the basic rules in creating mass markets. Among the most important is simplicity.


  Still, their criticism stung. And when I found myself working on a consumer-technology buying guide, I once again had a chance to try out some of the newest Web-browsing phones in Europe. The shiny test models came in from Siemens, Motorola, and Ericsson. This time, I vowed, I would pore over the manuals, call the help desks, do whatever it took to get these machines performing their cyber-cellular tricks.

Believe me, I tried. And again I failed.

In the process, I came up with some conclusions about the information gizmos we'll be using over the next five years.

First, the mobile Internet will not take off as a mass market until manufacturers produce friendlier machines. Based on what I've seen, that will be a couple years off, at least in Europe.

Meantime, the mobile Net will grow primarily as a business phenomenon. Why? Kids, who instinctively master complex Web-surfing machines, can't afford $900 for a souped-up phone with a color screen. But graying boomers like me will use one -- like it or not -- as soon as our tech department hands it to us, already configured, for a host of work applications. We'll be toiling with these machines sooner than we might like. And the rollout to businesses, already under way, should grow quickly as the faster data service, known as generation 2.5, takes root across Europe and North America.


  The second conclusion is that hybrids -- handsets that try to be a mobile phone and a handheld organizer at the same time -- face a rough slog. Lots of manufacturers are busy marrying the two technologies. The litter of gadgets on my desk is proof. But users will not give up a slender, high-performance phone that slips into the pocket and connects them to the world. Nor will they easily abandon an organizer that ties together the universe of data they've grown to expect at their fingertips.

They will sacrifice neither of these for a hybrid machine that does a worse job of both tasks. The combinations available at this point simply do not justify the aggravation.

A case in point is a new contraption from Siemens and Casio, the SX45. This is a pocket PC, complete with the Microsoft operating system, the touch screen, the stylus -- and it has a phone, too. One evening I figured I'd take it home and use it in lieu of my land line. What a mistake! Each call was an ordeal.


  For anyone who wrestled with hefty and difficult mobile phones in the late '80s, the phone lurking within the SX45 could bring back vivid memories. So would anyone seriously ditch a snazzy little Motorola or Nokia for this brick? No way that I can see.

This doesn't mean that PDAs won't carry integrated phones. Within a year or two, that will be the norm. But that phone will concentrate mainly on shuttling data, whether it's downloading sales orders, adding a lunch date to the calendar, or simply working as a modem for a laptop.

At the same time, phones that provide pint-sized computers aren't likely to put Palm and Pocket PCs out of business. Take the Ericsson R380s. It looks like a regular phone but flips open into a tiny computer with a black-and-white touch screen. As soon as it arrived, I hitched it up to my PC and loaded about 1,000 contacts into it, along with my schedule.


  I quickly saw, however, that the computer just wasn't up to the standards of a top-of-the-line PDA. When I searched for a contact in the R380s, it mulled over my query for more than 30 seconds before providing the answer. Not many PDA users will shelve their fast and trusty machines for that.

Add it all up, and the picture looks grim: Mobile Web-surfing machines are nearly impossible to configure, and PDAs come with awful phones and dawdling computers. I'm packing up the test units on my desk and sending them back where they came from without even a twinge of regret.

There is, however, a bright side. Until some outfit comes up with a dream machine -- a handset that really works as a phone and a mobile Web browser -- many of us will keep buying separate machines. That means welcome sales for the struggling wireless industry.

Baker covers the European technology scene from BusinessWeek's Paris bureau

Edited by Thane Peterson

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