The Wireless Web, with Strings Attached


By Stephen Baker We were making our way through the crowded Metro stop at Place de la Concorde in Paris one recent Friday evening when my wife, apropos of nothing, asked if the Italian elections were on Saturday or Sunday. I reached into my bag and pulled out the Compaq iPAQ, a handheld running Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system that I have been trying out. I poked my finger at the screen a couple times, scrolling through Yahoo! (the stylus that came with it is long gone). Bingo! So I told her what I had discovered: "Sunday. And Berlusconi is still ahead in the polls."

"Put that thing away!" she said, her eye scanning the crowd on the platform. "You'll attract attention."

"Just a minute, I want to see how the Phillies...," I responded, undeterred.

"Put it away!"

So much for technology. With nary a thanks for the important news item I had delivered, I pocketed the iPAQ and joined the pushing and prodding toward the train.

OUT OF THIS WORLD. It has been a year and a half since the much-trumpeted debut of the mobile Internet in Europe. I did quite a bit of the trumpeting myself, I'll admit. It's true that the mobile Net, in its painfully slow preliminary stage, has been a letdown. But with this new handheld (which retails for about $600), I'm getting my first glimpse of the mobile Net's potential. Let me confess: I'm deeply ambivalent.

This isn't the real wireless Web, not yet. It'll be at least a few more months before Pocket PC devices in Europe and North America come with radio connections to the higher-speed wireless networks known as Generation 2.5. For the time being, I simply synchronize the iPAQ to the information services I want from the Net by putting it in its hot-sync cradle by the computer.

When I left the office Friday afternoon, all the news I had requested was up to date. In truth, it shouldn't have mattered much. I had been living in cyberspace the entire day, sending e-mails and reading the news. Now, the real world beckoned.

I went outside and climbed onto the bus. It took me along the chic Rue Faubourg de St. Honore. Outside the window, the French were celebrating their first day of sunshine in months, tourists milled around the boutiques and fancy hotels, stern guards defended the Elysees Palace. But instead of soaking up the sights of springtime in Paris, I stared at this little machine in my hand and read news from America.

POWER IN MY POCKET. There's a clear danger here: Like much of the world, I fritter away weeks and months of my life on the desktop Internet. And now that same know-it-all force, dressed up with music and colors and featuring instant messaging -- not to mention work -- capabilities is fixing to follow all of us every step we take from here to the grave. This will change the way we live. And someone should write books, sermons, columns galore about it.

But I'm going to blow right past these crucial life issues to ponder a more immediate question: Who's going to make money from the mobile Net? Or more to the point, could it be that the winners on the wireless Web are going to dominate the entire industry?

I suspect they will, because that new little machine in my pocket has lots of reach. As soon as I got it hooked up to my computer, I started fiddling around with the programs on my desktop. I saw that if I switched my schedule and address list to Microsoft Outlook, it would synchronize with the Pocket PC software. I switched. And if I could migrate my e-mail from Netscape into Microsoft Explorer, my messages would plug into this little machine too.

BY THE WAYSIDE? Is a certain pattern emerging here? Yes. Microsoft, by moving its software into my pocket, is bolstering its position on the desktop and, more generally, on the Web. And it's not just Microsoft. The Pocket PC service offers me Yahoo! I also have a personalized Excite page, but if Yahoo works on the little machine and Excite doesn't, Excite is history. I could go on. The point is, while investors are panning the mobile Web, farsighted tech companies are racing to build their positions there.

The real test for mobile Net players will come when these little computers morph into phones. Microsoft now has developed a thinner version of its Windows CE operating system for mobile phones. It's called Stinger, and it's coming out at the end of 2001 on a series of cellular phones, from Samsung, Sony, and others. They'll have color screens, not all that much smaller than those on the Pocket PCs. This development and others like it mean -- all hype aside -- that ordinary, nontechies will soon be receiving their corporate e-mail on their mobile phones.

No, we won't be typing out long replies on the tiny keyboards or touchpads. They'll be short responses, like this: O.K. Try to buy him out cheap. Lunch next week?

APPLE'S FUTURE. By the time this happens, probably within two years, any company whose desktop and handheld offerings aren't dancing in time will be in dreadful shape. This leads me to wonder about Apple. It's now Sunday afternoon, and I'm in my apartment typing on my iMac at this very minute. The iPAQ, still loaded with Friday's stale news, is lying on a nearby table. These two machines aren't talking. Now if I fall in love with this Pocket PC, or a phone with similar software, what are the chances that I'll buy an Apple next time I'm in the market for a computer? Pretty slim, I'd say.

Computer makers like Apple need to get into phones. One obvious solution is to team up with phone manufacturers. This process is already afoot. Microsoft, naturally, is forging deals with every phone maker it can find. Sweden's Ericsson, which knows lots about phones and nothing about consumer electronics, is joining up with Sony. Apple, with its design savvy, has a lot to offer -- and just needs a connection with a phone maker to plunge into this wireless world.

My suggestion? Apple should team up with Motorola. Apple has the brand and knows computers. Motorola does phones. In this ramp-up for the mobile Web, these two need each other. And here's betting that if someday I pull out a snazzy Apple handheld in the Paris Metro, my wife won't be the only one to notice. Baker writes about technology issues from the Paris bureau of BusinessWeek. Follow his Euro-Tech columns twice a month, only on BW Online


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