Wire cutters

So you want wireless access to the Web? We put five devices through their paces to find out what works.

Published June 21, 2000 7:43PM (EDT)

I was at an event called "Mobility 2000" last month, where people who work for wireless Internet companies or for dot-coms striving to enter the wireless future gathered to talk about the nitty gritty of the matter, like how to design content for wireless devices. At one point a speaker from Razorfish, which organized the event, asked how many people in the audience had a Web-enabled cellphone. Only a few hands went up.

If there was ever an early-adopter crowd, you'd think that a bunch of wireless believers would be it. Sure, only 7 million out of 90 million U.S. cellphone users have Web-enabled phones, according to a Yankee Group study, and, yes, I've read countless pages devoted to the standards issues that have kept the United States from embracing wireless the way that Europe and Japan have. Still, I figured wireless access to the Web was enticing enough that at least a few of these pilgrims to the high-tech mecca of San Francisco would have it. Maybe, I thought, they're using other devices to stay online on the go -- maybe they're using something even better than a cellphone.

To find out just what the options are like, I borrowed five wireless gadgets and took them on a field trip that I thought might approximate some typical commutes in the gadget-happy Bay Area. Armed with two Web-enabled phones, a Palm VII, a laptop with a Ricochet modem and the new BlackBerry portable e-mail device, I headed out last Friday to roam the world and the Web.

I managed to log on from Highway 80 east of San Francisco (I was in the passenger seat, of course), on the Caltrain zipping between San Jose and San Francisco, atop the San Francisco-to-Oakland ferry and from a few cafes for good measure.

10 a.m. While lolling in line for a ferry to Oakland, I pulled out the BlackBerry 950 ($399), a smooth black box made by Research In Motion Limited, that fit in my palm like a deck of cards. I had never used the little device before and had only glanced at the manual, but within minutes, I was sending and receiving mail. By spinning a tiny wheel that functions like a mouse, I moved the cursor over to "compose," then pressed the wheel down like a button -- mimicking a mouse click that opened a new message, where I could type my thoughts and send them with another click of the wheel. A checkmark confirmed that the message went out. Pager-like beeps informed me when a response arrived.

The mix of the BlackBerry's Intel 386 processor, embedded modem and the Mobitex network -- BellSouth's national two-way data service, which costs BlackBerry users $40 per month to access -- made the process at least as fast as my desktop. The speed was as delightful as the sun warming my shoulders, and I felt a touch of glee as I realized I could keep up my end of an e-mail dialogue with my co-workers, even though I'd escaped the steely gray walls of my cube. The only drawback was the rice-grain-size keys of the BlackBerry, which I didn't find conducive to composing anything more than a few words per message.

10:25 a.m. As the ferry pushed out into the bay, I switched on my laptop, turned on the Metricom's Ricochet SX modem and dialed into Mindspring, my Internet service provider. I had set up the modem at home to save time, but I needn't have bothered. The Ricochet system -- which connects to the Net through microcellular radio transmitters that send signals from utility poles and the like to hard-wired Internet access points -- was remarkably easy to get working. All I had to do was plug it into the USB port on my ThinkPad and change my outgoing mail server in my e-mail program. I didn't even have to pull out my dial-up PCMCIA modem card. In no time, I was surfing my favorite news sites and e-mailing with ease as the ferry sailed beneath the Bay Bridge toward Alameda.

There was, however, the problem of size. I didn't know what to do with the rather bulky black device that resembled a flattened VHS tape with a 6-inch rubber antenna. A graphic on the Ricochet Web site shows a modem attached to the back of a laptop's screen, but I had a different model, and there were no instructions on how to do this, and quite frankly I wasn't so sure I wanted to make the relationship that permanent.

Ricochet has other limitations as well. Data moves at 28.8 kilobytes per second, which is fine for e-mail but a bit snail-paced for anything else. Metricom says it'll roll out higher-speed access within a few months, but the company has been decidedly slow in making progress. Though it launched its service in 1996, Metricom's service is still confined to San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C., plus the airports and a few pricey hotels in seven other cities, such as New York and Los Angeles.

11:15 The ferry had stopped in Oakland and was ready to head back to San Francisco, with 50 fourth-graders in tow. I headed to the outdoor ferry deck, and sat down with a Palm VII ($449 plus a monthly service charge). Starting up was easy; I hit "compose" and wrote a quick message. Typing with one stylus took more time than typing with two thumbs on the BlackBerry, but this was a minor nitpick. I half-expected it to be the only one I had.

No such luck. The Palm VII seemed to find a connection without much trouble, but instead of sending off my message, it bumped me to a registration screen which refused all three of my credit cards. I called Palm's public relations team to see if I was doing something wrong, but a company spokesman said no. "Just keep trying" was his best advice.

One of the school kids stopped by to ask what I was doing. But when I told him, he just squinted at me. So I asked him if he thought it would be fun to get online while on the boat. "No, not really," he said, somewhat disgusted. "I'm going to get a Coke."

12:15 p.m. The BlackBerry and Ricochet were eager to send messages, but as my boat pulled up to the San Francisco Ferry Building, I had to give up on the Palm VII.

2 p.m. After lunch, at an outdoor cafe where I played again with the BlackBerry, I headed for the Caltrain depot. A good third of the crowd had a cellphone in hand at the brightly colored South of Market station. This was hardly unusual, but I wondered how many had access to the Web in their hands.

Soon I spotted Tim and Kathy Robertson. Like me, they were waiting for the train to San Jose, their heads hanging inches apart over the BlackBerry 957 ($499), a just-released cousin to the BlackBerry 950 in my pocket. The new model offers not just wireless e-mail, a calendar, and an alarm clock as mine did, but also Web access.

I wanted to check it out, so I pulled out my BlackBerry and approached them. The Robertsons obliged. Tim, who was so pleased with his device that he seemed to turn right into a volunteer BlackBerry spokesman, scrolled through some of the features while he and his wife continued to praise the little device. Even when the BlackBerry failed to work -- Tim tried to look up Microsoft's stock price, but couldn't find a connection -- their enthusiasm never waned.

"I love it," Kathy said. "It's so easy to use!"

"I'm a die-hard Palm user but I really, really like it -- especially for e-mail," said Tim, a senior software architect for Oracle, his thumbs typing away on the tiny keyboard.

"But it's not even connecting," I countered. "Doesn't that bother you? And aren't you frustrated by the rice-sized keys and tiny screen? The limited Web-surfing options?"

"Well, wireless access isn't perfect," he replied. "But it's still quicker and easier than going to my office to log-on."

If only the same could be said of the Web phones I'd commandeered.

2:15 p.m. Rattling along the tracks through Silicon Valley, I pulled out a Motorola Timeport ($300), a silver-slick version of the popular StarTac line, which I had on loan from Sprint PCS. I launched the Phone.com browser, and found my way to CNN.com, one of about 40 sites that offer all-text wireless access protocol (WAP) versions to wireless customers. I browsed the headlines and read a few stories, all stuff I hadn't seen in the morning paper.

Still, I could only handle a half-hour of pretending to get anything done within that tiny screen (about three-quarters of an inch by 1.5 inches); it holds no more than 10 words at a time. And when I wasn't scrolling slowly through a story, I was stuck waiting for the 14.4 kbps connection to bring up another half-sentence.

So I tried the Mitsubishi T-250 ($199) from AT&T. Its screen is about twice as big, and unlike Sprint, which charges according to how much data you send and receive, AT&T offers all-you-can-eat access with all its digital phone packages. Still, the deal did me little good: 20 minutes out of San Francisco, the phone couldn't find a network connection. In fact, it couldn't connect during the whole train ride.

When I called AT&T, spokesman John Mendez blamed my troubles on the phone and offered to send me an Ericsson model, which he said costs half as much and "works much better." But it was too late for my field-trip experiment. (Later, I wondered why AT&T offered the Mitsubishi if it couldn't provide decent service on it.)

2:35 p.m. I figured I now knew why even the folks attending a wireless Web conference have yet to take up surfing on cellphones, and I returned to the Ricochet. Sitting near the window, I placed the modem on my leg under the computer and signed on. I pulled down about 20 e-mails and replied to a few. Then, just outside the town of Burlingame, the connection cut out.

I checked the other devices to see if it was a widespread problem. The AT&T phone still failed, but the BlackBerry and the Sprint phone connected with no problem. On the phone, I checked for movie times using Go2online.com. After a few taps, I had entered my zip code and the movie I wanted to see, discovering that "Groove" was playing a few hours later at my neighborhood cinema.

3:15 p.m. I was pretty pleased with my devices at this point. I realized how much better commuting or just running around town would be if I could fire off e-mail and check stock prices or movie times or what have you. But I figured the wireless Web's most attractive trait is silence.

After all, my biggest gripe with cellphones is that they inject private conversation into a public place. I don't want you to hear what stock I'm buying or when I'm meeting someone at a restaurant; and I definitely don't want be privy to comments like "Oh, so you're single" -- which is exactly what a black-turtlenecked dot-commer in wire-rimmed glasses said to some poor soul while I was on the train just outside of Atherton, Calif. With wireless e-mail these scenes could be avoided. It allows you to communicate outside the office without forcing those around you to share your work.

Before I even started in on this field trip, I road-tested a few of these devices as I tried to stay in touch with the office while heading out of the city. Along the beach in southern San Francisco, I was able to read the news on both the cellphones. And on the way to the mountains -- while my friends listened to the radio, shared snacks and took turns driving -- I pulled out the Ricochet and managed to access my e-mail until we were about an hour out of San Francisco.

And by the end of my experiment, I was pretty much sold on the wireless Web -- even if the Web-enabled phones aren't quite up to snuff. Give me a BlackBerry or a Ricochet and I'd happily desert my cube.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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