Two things help a lot: better phones and better networks. Wireless networks remain very slow, but the issue of speed is much misunderstood. Because the displays are so small, the amount of information that typically gets sent to a phone is tiny, so raw speed isn't much of an issue. The bigger problem is what network engineers call "latency" -- the time it takes to process a request on the network.
COLOR SCREEN. Although CDMA wireless systems, such as those used by Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless, transmit data at a pokey 14.4 kilobits per second, a technology called quick Net connect (QNC) can dramatically shorten the amount of time it takes to retrieve online information. It makes the network seem a lot faster than it is.
The state of the art in Web-enabled phones, at least in the rather backward U.S., is the Sanyo SCP-5000, available to Sprint subscribers for $500. The SCP-500's claim to fame, in addition to the use of QNC with its OpenWave (formerly Phone.com) browser, is an eight-line color screen. In typical phone or data use, color really isn't that big of a deal, though it does make it easier to pick items out of a sometimes crowded display.
The dual-band phone (Sprint CDMA with analog fallback for use in areas where digital service is not available) features two hours of talk time and 120 hours of standby with the standard battery. Although the SCP-5000 comes with a belt clip, it is small (3x2x1 in.) and light (3 oz.) enough to slip easily into a pocket or purse.
EUROPE'S BIG LEAD. Sprint has provisioned the phone with a nice assortment of data services. One of the best is AOL Anywhere. And the availability of AOL Instant Messenger partially makes up for the absence of short message service (SMS), a wildly popular way of using phones outside the U.S. SMS, which is generating billions of messages and billions of dollars in monthly revenues for carriers in Europe, allows phone users to send brief text messages directly to each other. It works much like paging or instant messaging.
An outstanding feature of SMS: All you need to send a message is the recipient's mobile phone number. If Juergen in Frankfort sends an SMS message to his French colleague, Claude, it will be delivered instantly -- even if Claude is working in Moscow or vacationing in Spain. The convenience is so great that people cheerfully put up with the hassle of entering text messages on keypads.
U.S. carriers are just beginning to enable SMS. So far, however, even on systems that offer it, you can send messages only to other subscribers using the same carrier. Since most people neither know nor care who provides service to their friends and colleagues, this restriction defeats the whole purpose. By failing to get together and make intercarrier SMS work, the U.S. industry is missing a huge opportunity.
CURIOUS GEORGE. Notwithstanding the lack of SMS, the Sanyo-Sprint combo works very well. Of course, it does fall prey to tech designers' insistence on always adding at least one more feature than is strictly necessary. In the case of the SCP-5000, it's the ability to download up to 20 photos from your PC to your phone. The photos can be linked to numbers in your phone book, and the associated picture will pop up when you receive a call from that number. (My test phone, somewhat peculiarly, came programmed with a picture of President George W. Bush that popped up when the phone was turned on.) I generally know what the people in my phone book look like, so I found the feature more silly than useful.
If someone could only figure out an easy way to enter data into these phones, they would be a lot more useful. Since that breakthrough doesn't seem to be on the horizon, the SCP-5000 is about as good as it gets, at least for now. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online