You stumble across it when you're fiddling with your cell phone. Click, click, click. And then there it is, like the door to a mysterious, unknown land. It may have a name like "Web" or "browser." Maybe, once or twice, you even took a few steps into this foreign territory. But then you got lost or frustrated with how long it took to get anywhere. Or perhaps you became concerned with what you were going to get charged for the Weather Channel's extended forecast for your town. After all, why use your cell phone when you could just look in today's newspaper?
Okay, forget the paper for a moment. Time for a guided tour of the data services you can get on your mobile phone. It's worth a few minutes of effort. Today more than ever, cellular carriers are offering up a variety of useful -- and downright fun -- wireless extras. There are ring tones and mobile games, picture-mail and Web browsing, even television clips and what are known as location services. The latter lets you find things like what street a co-worker is standing on and whether there's a Starbucks (SBUX) nearby where the two of you can meet.
The possibilities this new technology creates are intriguing. Take it from Chris Butler, a 24-year-old tech consultant in Chicago. He's upgraded the caller ID function on his Sanyo 8200 from Sprint (FON) with photos of people that call him. His girlfriend dials his number, and up pops her picture. He can download music clips to turn his phone into a personalized alarm clock when he's on the road. His cell phone lets him watch CNN highlights while riding to the airport in a taxi. And soon, Butler and most anyone else will be able to equip their phones with "ringback" tones -- music that a caller hears when your phone is ringing or when she is on hold. "[Cell phones] are so much better than a couple years back," Butler says. "[Then] I just wanted my battery to last more than an hour."
Dabbling with these data services won't break the bank. Most of the carriers offer packages that allow you to explore the world of data for a reasonable monthly fee. Look for plans that mimic the flat-fee packages of voice minutes you're familiar with. Sprint, for example, offers unlimited picture- and video-mailing, Net browsing, and text messaging for $20 a month, on top of your voice plan. If you don't need unlimited amounts, or you only want one type of service -- photos rather than music or videos -- the carriers offer lower monthly plans. For Net browsing with photo messaging alone, it's $15 at Sprint. AT&T (AWE) has a $7.99 plan -- its most popular -- for a megabyte's worth of data. That's enough to send about 25 decent-quality photos a month.
While every carrier now offers plans to launch you into the data world, some are better than others. My favorite is AT&T. It has a wide range of packages, starting at a very reasonable $2.99 a month for its "mini" plan and topping out at $24.99 for a plan that gives you unlimited access to a broad range of goodies. Sprint, Verizon (VZ), and T-Mobile also offer reasonable plans, although I found them slightly harder to use or short on particular features. Cingular is the least attractive option. It typically offers small allotments of things like text messages or Net access, and you pay extra if you use more. Its unlimited data packages are pricey. The rub is that Cingular is acquiring AT&T, in a deal expected to be completed this year. Cingular's voice service is much better than AT&T's, but it would be wise for the giant to adopt some of AT&T's best practices when it comes to data.
Nickels and Dimes
There's one thing to look out for with data services: The packages you get from wireless companies don't include everything. To snack on cool morsels like ring tones and games, you'll have to pay à la carte. The cost for downloading a music sound bite, for example, ranges from 99 cents to $2.99. Games run as high as $6.49. Each of the major carriers allows you to download some of these items from their Web sites. If what they offer is not to your liking you can find a wider variety of content elsewhere on the Web. Zingy.com and jamdat.com sell everything from music to games to wallpaper for prettying up the screen on your phone. Just order what you want from a PC and send it to your phone or, with a little more effort, you can order directly from your phone.
Snapping and sending pictures just might be the most useful new tool going. Matt Walbruch, a 27-year-old real estate agent in Denver, tours 10 houses a day. He shoots as he walks through them, and then he sends the pictures to his best prospects. It's easy because his phone maker, Sanyo, has tied the camera function directly to the address book. Shoot, add an e-mail address, and send. Or take Butler, who admits that he's a bit extreme. To avoid bringing home the wrong purchase, he e-mails his girlfriend snapshots of grocery items at the supermarket and waits for her A-O.K. before he goes through the checkout line. If you're not such an avid shutterbug, nix a monthly fee and pay the 25 cents to 40 cents a photo.
TV to Go
While photo services are catching on, television on phones is still a work in progress. The quality of mobile TV now leaves a lot to be desired. And it's not just because you're watching on a tiny screen. The signals chug along at a rate of 15 frames per second, vs. the 30 frames for regular TV. Still, AT&T and Sprint are offering services that may tempt a few sports or news junkies. For $9.95 a month, customers can tune in to more than 20 news, sports, and entertainment channels. For another $4.95 a month, they can get clips from several channels, including ABC News. And improvements are on the way. Texas Instruments (TXN) says it has developed a computer chip that will let cellular phones pick up any television broadcast in real time by 2006.
In some ways, the future is already here. Carriers such as Nextel and AT&T have tracking services that link mobile phones to satellites, which can pinpoint the location of a place or person. You need a phone equipped with global positioning system technology, but that's standard in many phones these days. The service lets users, say, find the location of a movie theater in a town they're visiting. You don't need to punch in a ZIP code: Simply click on the location-services feature, and a list of nearby eating establishments and theaters will automatically appear.
Press another key or two and it's like launching a virtual secretary. As part of AT&T 's $7.99 monthly data plan, you can punch in other AT&T users' mobile numbers and it will tell you the intersection where they are. If you want to meet someone, the service will show you a list of nearby places -- from coffee shops to libraries. Then you can call or zap a text message to that person with the address and directions.
Of course, there are privacy concerns with such a service, and carriers have taken steps to address them. You can only track someone down if that user gives you permission by including you in a list of "buddies" granted such privileges. Another limitation: You can only track down people who are using the same wireless carrier that you are. That's a nuisance that wireless carriers are working to overcome in the near future.
Slowly but surely, the carriers sense they can capture your loyalty only if they let you communicate broadly. Consider the instant-messaging services from AOL, Yahoo!, and MSN. Now you can communicate with other members when you're away from your desktop, zapping messages to their phone or computer from the bus or the ball game. Prices are generally the same as for basic text messages -- usually 5 cents to 10 cents one way. And while not every carrier does it, AT&T and Sprint allow you to send instant messages to customers of all three major IM services.
By now it should be clear. Plain old telephone service is a relic of the past. A song -- like a picture or a text message -- can be worth a thousand words. Chris Butler's phone, a 21st century jukebox, plays Let's Get it Started by hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas one moment and Baby Boy, by R&B diva Beyoncé, another. He has a different ring tone for each of his buddies. "I know who's calling before I pull the phone out of my pocket," he says. With attractions like musical caller ID, it may be time to consider a visit to the world of wireless data.
By Roger O. Crockett