Please hold for smart phones
May 19, 1999
by David Essex
(IDG) -- The heyday of smart phones -- which are cellular phones that can receive text and data -- has been around the corner for a year or more. But this summer, you may finally see the blossoming of a crop of new, lightweight digital phones that let you manage contacts and schedules, check e-mail and even browse a scrunched-down version of the Web.
Until then, your choices are minimal. The closest thing to the next-generation smart phone is AT&T Communications' PocketNet Service, which can display e-mail on your choice of two phones that run the microbrowser from Phone.Com Inc. (formerly Unwired Planet), a key player in the smart-phone market. There's also a slew of wireless modems that link phones to PCs and handhelds that have optional wireless modems, delivering the wireless personal digital assistant (PDA) functions promised in the new phones. But those hybrids can be complicated to set up and awkward to use, a far cry from getting your contacts, to-do lists and e-mail beamed directly into one convenient device -- the ultimate promise of smart phones.
Several phones that should put all the pieces together are expected to be out soon. Smart-phone efforts started to coalesce in March with the release of the widely supported Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) 1.0 and announcements at the German trade show, CeBit. There, cell-phone biggies Ericsson Inc., Motorola Inc., Nokia and PDA maker Psion PLC said the Java Internet language would be built in to wireless devices.
And Microsoft touted Web phones from Acer Inc., Philips Electronics NV, DaewooTelecom Ltd., Nortel Networks, Panasonic Communications & Systems Co. and Vestel Information Appliances Division, all sporting 640- by 480-pixel screens. The phones run Windows CE, Microsoft's operating system for handhelds, and are also due by year's end.
But 1999 may be more the year of prime hype than prime time, according to Gartner Group Inc. research director Bob Egan, who calls the new phones "market experiments." The bottom line is that smart phones won't get their act together for another year or two.
Besides the AT&T PocketNet and external modem-dependent products reviewed earlier, only two U.S.-compatible smart phones were available for testing: the latest upgrade of Nokia's 9000 Communicator and Motorola's brand-new StarTAC Mobile Organizer, a mini-organizer card that attaches to the back of a StarTAC phone.
I found that they deliver much of what others only talk about.
StarTAC Mobile Organizer Motorola, $250 (phone is $334.95 to $524.95 without service)
Fitted with one of these organizers, Motorola's little flip-top StarTAC phone barely qualifies as smart, save for the ability to swap phone numbers and initiate calls. But superior ergonomics, portability and simplicity make this pager-size combination practical for daily use. It lets you manage contact names and phone numbers right where you need them -- on the phone itself.
The Organizer gets ample input from a frugal mix of seven rubberized buttons (reversible for left- or right-handed use by a quick flip of the display) and a monochrome LCD interface that avoids needless text entry with well-placed pick lists. Like the players' initials screen in a video game, you have to scroll through the alphabet to select letters, but I found it easy to enter a name and phone number in less than a minute. The standard calendar, to-dos, contacts and notepad are replete with cross-links and alarms. A PC serial cable and Starfish Software Inc.'s TrueSync provide data exchange with personal information managers and connected PDAs, but they weren't included in my beta unit.
The Organizer is a quick fix if it's the PDA part of smart phones that intrigues you. It puts your cell phone and contact information in one device, which saves you the hassle of carrying a separate PDA for that one purpose (though for to-dos and calendars, it's an awkward alternative to pen-input PDAs like the PalmPilot, which are more powerful and user friendly).
Nokia 9000il Communicator Nokia, $699
Nokia's all-in-one wonder is a heavy, brick-size cell phone with a PDA sandwiched between its front and back, uniquely integrating contact lists, to-dos and calendars with the standard tools of digital communication.
In two days, I used the 9000il to send a fax, browse the Web, send and receive e-mail, make wireless phone calls and control my home-office answering machine.
The "l" stands for light, as in the backlighting that previous models were criticized for lacking. In a dim room, the 9000il would be barely readable without it. Outdoors, its wide monochrome LCD is easy on the eyes thanks to plain, bold print. Web pages are another story: graphics are reduced to cryptic symbols and scrolling through pages is slow and disorienting. Still, it's adequate if you need to read information off Web pages and can't get to a full-size PC screen.
With small, shallow keys, the 9000il isn't for writing more than telegraph-style messages, though you can use a serial link to import larger files.
Sometimes, its hybrid nature is a handicap: The touch tones sent to my answering machine had to be entered on the PDA keyboard, which required awkward handling as I switched between the open PDA and the earpiece on back.
There are so many communication types that the learning curve for the 9000il is steep, and setup can be a pain. Uploads and downloads take about twice as long as you may be used to.
The 9000il is worth buying if you need all your everyday means of communication handy. For a subset -- such as voice, e-mail and Web access -- consider one of the more streamlined Web phones, such as the AT&T PocketNet phones or the soon-to-be-released NeoPoint 1000.
David Essex is a freelance writer from Antrim, N.H.
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