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ISSUE 573: Comment- Oct 17 2000


The high-tech office
ALAN ZISMAN

Cell phone Internet useis not much to look at

Predictions have been made that within a couple of years, more than half of the devices going online won't be traditional personal computers. Most of those devices won't be handheld computers. Many digital cell phones already have the capability of getting Internet information, and WAP -- the Wireless Application Protocol -- gives service providers a standardized way to provide Internet-enabled services.

Clearnet Communications Inc. claims that half of its customer base has Internet-capable phones and that all of its current lineup is Internet-ready. In August, Clearnet launched Internet services on its Pay & Talk prepaid service, free until the end of the year. They have more recently offered $10 and $15 Wireless Web Services plans to Mike and Clearnet PCS monthly customers.

I tried out the Pay & Talk services, using a tiny dual-mode Sanyo 4000 phone. It takes some getting used to. As with the Web-clipping services we looked at for the Palm and Visor, you can't simply browse any Web site.

A standard Web page, viewed on a cell phone's tiny screen, would be virtually unreadable. So Web clipping services offer information from an Internet source, reformatted to be better read on the small screen. Better readability is traded for a dramatically limited range of information. You're limited to what your service provider wants you to have.

Currently, Pay & Talk clients can choose from:

- Online directories. Search for business and personal phone numbers and addresses and Yellow Pages listings. A potentially nice "map" feature promises driving directions from your current location to the business that you've looked up.

- Games from Playdium. Poker, Word Quest, Tic Tac Toe and Trivia online.

- Fun Sites. Funniest.com offers "BrainPoop," "unHistory 101" and more short jokes. City sites are currently limited to Toronto.com and MontrealPlus, offering cinema, restaurant, transit, events and other information for those locations (Montreal in French). I'm not sure that emergency information for Toronto counts as my idea of fun. HMV.com offers a top-10 list and store information.

- Finally, there's a Demo Zone offering samples of services available on the pay services such as messaging, banking and brokerage services, news, weather, sports and traffic information, access to specific "hot sites" (currently, only Canada.com rates such a listing) and, of course, shopping (Indigo and HMV).

Frankly, it's not much. It is, however, more a demonstration of the concept than an actual, up and running, currently useful service. That, I suppose, is why it's free. Clearnet is promising that more content will be continually added.

However, there are more basic problems that leave me doubtful about using a cell phone on the Net.

While handheld computers such as the Palm are clearly limited compared to a standard personal computer, they have a relatively straightforward user interface and way to enter information. Their screens, tiny compared to desktop or notebook computers, are huge compared to a cell phone.

On the cell phone, navigating through layers of menu choices is slow and tedious. The potentially useful directory information is made painful to the point of being almost unusable, by requiring entry of a business or personal name by slowly pecking on the phone keys: Twice on the "6" key for a letter "N," four times on the "7" key for a letter "S." Try typing in Business in Vancouver that way!

Internet usability expert Jakob Nielsen suggests the mobile Internet is still not ready for real use. Despite Clearnet's (and others') good intentions and hard work, I'm forced to concur. He suggests that studies have shown that what he calls "the deck-of-cards form factor" of handheld computers "offer immensely superior usability to anything based on a telephone."

Still, Canadians use seven million wireless phones. Expect many more efforts at packaging the Internet for cell phones. 



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan