Brian Murphy gets his daily business headlines and weather forecasts simply by turning on his cellular phone. No calling or log-on needed. It's all in a text message sent to him by Pronto, a subscription service that provides information on the fly to mobile-phone users. Murphy, a trader at KBC Financial Products in New York, also dials Pronto's toll-free number when he needs restaurant reservations or driving directions. "They can answer any question," he says.
If you think your cell phone is only good for gabbing, it's time to take another look. A growing selection of cell-phone extras can turn your run-of-the-mill handset into everything from a personal concierge to a fully stocked game room. And you don't even have to launch your phone's Web browser to use them. Some, like Pronto, take advantage of text-messaging to deliver info right to any cell phone. Others are software programs that you can download into your phone wirelessly simply by clicking through the choices offered by your wireless carrier.
The smorgasbord of downloads varies by carrier, as does the pricing. Some carriers charge a one-time fee for unlimited use of the software. Others charge you to use the game or program for a set amount of time, after which your access to it is blocked. The game JAMDAT Bowling, for example, costs $1.99 a month or $4.99 for unlimited use on Verizon Wireless's Get It Now download service. On Sprint Corp.'s PCS Vision (PCS), you'll pay $3.99 for 60 days of use.
Some of the best downloads turn your phone into a travel assistant. With AirInfo, available from Verizon (VZ), for example, you can check the status of a flight by punching your flight number into your phone. The same service clues you in to general travel conditions at specific airports. Another offering, Mobile Expense, allows you to punch in restaurant bills or taxi fares and send them through a short message to the expense form on your PC.
Some of the most useful cell-phone tools are available to all, regardless of their wireless carrier. Pronto is one of the best. Once you set up your preferences--weather, stock quotes, and so forth--on the Web (askpronto.com), Pronto sends text alerts to your phone, tailored to your preferences. The cost: $19.95 per month.
For drivers, the My Car service from MSN Autos (autos.msn.com) is handy. You can set it to send traffic alerts to your phone in 65 cities. Fees? You just pay your carrier for the short messages, according to the details of your phone-subscription plan.
Done working? It's time to have some fun. Depending on your mobile operator, you can download dozens of games, from classics such as Jeopardy to Tiger Woods PGA Tour.
Sometimes it's a bit tricky to, say, aim and shoot a ball using the number keys, but once you get the hang of it, you could get hooked. And you'll soon forget the days when your cell phone was all talk and no action. By Arlene Weintraub