Catching public's fancy key to wireless Internet

Using cell phones to tap Web hasn't caught on in U.S.

Industry seeks new uses

March 01, 2001|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Jacob Christfort stands before hundreds of his colleagues in the telecommunications industry trying to convince them they aren't as far behind Europe in public acceptance of wireless technology as commonly believed.

"The United States has the highest concentration of mobile devices in the world," he claims and then holds aloft his proof: the humble TV remote-control.

That device, comfortable for the likes of Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson, should be a blueprint for the industry as it tries to convince consumers and business people that they need to be in touch with the Internet and each other everywhere, says Christfort, chief technology officer and vice president of product development for OracleMobile, an Internet company based in Redwood Shores, Calif. Most everyone is comfortable using a TV remote control because it does what they need it to do and does it simply, he explains.

As if at a religious revival service, participants at the Internet World Wireless 2001 show inside Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center nod in unison. Christfort has struck a nerve - and these days executives and investors in the wireless industry need all the reassurance they can get.

The makers, designers and backers of equipment that transmits data and pictures through the air believe they are at the cusp of a cultural revolution. An estimated billion people will use wireless devices to communicate worldwide by 2004. But as these companies witnessed their dot-com brethren crash and burn, and watched their own stock values plunge, they're not as cocky as a year ago.

Just last week, Motorola Inc., a major maker of wireless communications equipment, announced its first quarterly operating loss in more than 15 years. Another major player, Nortel Networks Corp., announced lower expectations for revenue growth for the year. The bad news helped continue the yearlong drop of the Nasdaq, where many technology stocks are traded.

The wireless communications industry in 2001 is like television in the 1950s, Christfort tells his convention audience. The pictures on those first TVs couldn't have been worse - small, grainy, black and white. They were horrid, especially compared with the majestic movie theaters of the era. But the public was transfixed by television because "they understood it was a different concept. It wasn't about seeing `Lawrence of Arabia' on your TV. It was about getting news and information and programs specially made for TV. ... In fact, TV shows are the `killer application' of TV," Chrisfort says, getting a knowing chuckle at an inside joke.

"Killer application" - or "killer ap" - is an oft-heard buzzword in the wireless world. The phrase, loosely defined, is the use that makes a product indispensable, or at least very desirable.

It may be one of the more easily defined terms amid the techno-alphabet soup. Executives pepper conversations with references to WAP and PAN and LAN and WAN, acronyms for various devices and types of telecommunications systems.

Like Internet companies, the wireless sector is saturated with young people in leadership roles, so inside the Javits complex - a boxy, glass fortress overlooking the Hudson River - are scenes you might not see at a gathering of a "more mature" industry: A 20-something guy whose nametag identified him as a chief executive officer repeatedly flips a yo-yo. The quirky theme music from the TV show "Seinfeld" accompanies one company's demonstration booth. Nearby, a couple of guys celebrate a photo in that morning's newspaper of MTV host Carson Daly and singer Justin Timberlake of the pop band N*Sync swapping e-mails on their paging devices at the Grammy Awards.

"Pagers are cool again," whoops Chester D. Lasall, communications director for Arch Wireless, a Massachusetts company.

But the optimism is guarded. The $64,000 question remains: What form of this communication will hook the public. Only 6 percent of cell phone owners in the United States use their devices for the Internet, compared with 72 percent in Japan, according to a survey by Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting. A TV commercial, widely shown in the Baltimore area, that depicts a pedestrian opening her umbrella just in time for a passing shower after she checked the forecast on her mobile phone remains science-fiction for most.

Technology is racing in search of the "killer ap." Pagers and wallet-sized "personal digital assistants" such as the Palm and BlackBerry include typewriter-like keypads to make composing e-mail easier. "Pocket PCs" resemble shrunken versions of desktop computers. Many Web sites have begun reformatting themselves for wireless form so they can be viewed on a smaller screen with fewer of the fancy graphics that clog the download of information.

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