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Analysis: Pre-3G phones get CeBIT debut

HANNOVER, Germany (CNN) -- CeBIT is big -- very big in fact, and certainly not for the faint at heart.

Sprawling over more than two dozen halls, this is a fiesta for anyone who is interested in technology. And it's likely to leave you with a headache if you're not.

It was the mobile phone firms that made news on the eve of the tech expo, which officially opens Thursday: those like Alacatel, Motorola and Nokia that have announced a huge slowdown in business and have seen their share prices fall by more than half.

First to the rescue was WAP, then 3G. The promises are great, the amounts being spent huge -- so much so that it has put all the major European telecom companies in deep financial holes. Now though, at CeBIT 2001 in Hannover, Germany, we have been given a glimpse of what comes before 3G: GPRS, or as it has unkindly been called, 2G 1/2.

Working with the existing GSM operating system, GPRS phones were launched here by all the major handset makers -- each promising and offering to do more than the others. The phones, it has to be said, don't look much different from the existing ones -- but the promises being made are extravagant indeed.

According to Fred Kuznick, head of Motorola in Europe, GPRS is the short-term future: "On the one side there are the operators spending a heck of a lot of money on 3G. ... But we are at a crossroads. GPRS for the first time will give the consumer and business something that is more than a telephone connection only."

What is that something else? It is access to data -- the ability to get more than just a text message or slow WAP access over the phone.

"It is going to give access to immediate availability for everything that is configured on the Internet," says Anssi Vanjoki, executive vice president of Nokia, the world's largest mobile handset maker. "If you want to have stock market quotes from London, by the push of a button you are going to be there. It's instant access."

Now this might seem like pure, unadulterated hype to those of us promised the world by WAP -- which failed to deliver anything more than higher phone bills. But the manufactures are more bullish. They know that for most of us, 3G won't be a reality for at least 2 to 3 years (even if Japan gets 3G later this year). So getting consumers to buy into GPRS is vital if slowing sales are to be rekindled.

Nokia, for instance, is targeting a market share of 40 percent. Vanjoki says the company's current market share is more than 30 percent, and that it expects to hit the 40 percent mark with what he calls "the transformation of the mobile business into techno-branding."

At CeBIT, the handsets on display probably don't do GPRS justice. I had to look at other gadgets, like Motorola's new combined mobile phone and personal digital assistant (PDA) -- a cell phone with a Palm-like device. This was small, compact and seemed a whole lot easier to use than Nokia's current version. But don't worry -- Nokia, too, was showing its new version.

All of which is likely to leave the consumer bemused and befuddled -- and, if the companies have their way, dipping into their pockets. The feeling of being left out, behind the curve, in the past, old fashioned will be the call of the wild as the new devices come onto the market. If you never liked WAP and have doubts about 3G, wait for GPRS -- it will be coming to a cell phone store soon.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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