First Web phone is a $500 disappointment

Personal Computers

March 16, 1998|By STEPHEN MANES | STEPHEN MANES,New York Times News Service

THE much-heralded information appliance has been an unkept promise for years. The promise is that we will one day see cheap self-contained electronic devices that can perform many of the important functions of computers without their stupefying complexity and instability. The reality is that the simplest and most dependable information appliance has been around for more than a century. It is called a telephone, and only its relative the fax machine has managed to come close.

That is one reason why glorified telephones have often been proposed as a means of delivering the joys of modern digital communication. Prototypes for several phones with built-in Web browsers were shown at the Consumer Electronic Show in January 1997, but none of them arrived on the market last year.

Now I understand why. The new Iphone from Cidco Inc., is the first so-called Web phone publicly available. It comes with a back-lighted monochrome screen, built-in e-mail and Web-browsing software, a little pull-out keyboard, a bunch of specialized telephone functions and some serious problems, not the least of which is its $500 price tag.

This is one expensive phone. For $500 you can get a fully functional though slightly outdated new computer, minus monitor. Or you might budget $500 for a television set, a WebTV device and a telephone. Either solution would be a better investment than the Iphone. Someone may yet make a good Web phone, but it will take far more attention to detail than this disappointing first attempt.

It is hard to say which of the Iphone's many shortcomings is most frustrating. One candidate is the 7 1/4 -inch monochrome touch-screen, which is so finicky that I had to turn on an annoying beep tone to inform me when I had officially touched something.

On Web pages with tightly spaced items, it is almost impossible to aim correctly unless you use the built-in stylus, and unpredictable things happen even then. Like all such screens, this one gets smudged quickly if you use the handiest pointing device, your finger.

Because so many Web pages use color, navigating through the black text and images on a bluish background can be tricky. Since color is unavailable to indicate hyperlinks, the browser typically turns them into gray buttons, which makes them visually annoying in the middle of text. And lettering that looks fine on color screens can occasionally be impossible to read on this one.

The browser's limitations do not stop there. It cannot handle audio or video of any kind or pages that use Java, Javascript or plug-ins. If a site insists that your browser accept cookies, those little information-trail crumbs that Web pages deposit in the hard-disk woods like digital Hansels and Gretels, you cannot visit it. If you often return to a site that uses a cookie to store your password, you have to type it every time you log in.

Pages that use frames evince a full-page message announcing that "frames will be supported in a future software release, and you will be notified when it is available." Then you can see the data one frame at a time, which is only marginally better than nothing. When the browser runs into an animated GIF image, it displays only the first picture, not the whole sequence. The good news is that this helps make many irritating banner ads utterly incomprehensible. About the only other good news is that the browser turns phone numbers into buttons that can dial the phone when you press them.

In the most hilarious limitation, you cannot use an Iphone to order another one from Cidco's Web site at Instead of an order form, you get the message "secure communications not supported." Since secure communications are at the core of Internet commerce, the Iphone pretty much rules out the more sophisticated forms of it, like buying things. A software upgrade that fixes the problem is promised soon.

The modem is an underpowered 14.4-kilobit model whose apparent speed is enhanced somewhat by trickery at the other end of the line. That means that for now you must use the Iphone's service provider, Concentric Network Corp. at a cost of $19.95 a month for more or less unlimited use or $9.95 for 10 hours and $1.95 each additional hour, plus tolls if the company lacks a number in your toll-free calling area. The only local number in my area was even slower than the modem; to get the Iphone to work properly, I had to pay long-distance tolls.

The e-mail setup does not allow separate mailboxes for members of a family, and only after two days of trying could Cidco manage to make my account work properly. The device cannot understand file attachments even if they are just text.

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