Some people are so attached to the Internet that it's difficult for them to leave it behind when they leave their desks.
Soon they may not have to.
A new class of devices that combine the features of mobile phones and portable computers promises to make wireless data connections as commonplace as cell phone conversations.
"Smart" phones will be used to answer electronic mail messages in addition to voice calls. Palmtop PCs and personal digital assistants (PDAs) will be able to read Web pages as easily as computerized schedules and to-do lists. Other products are being developed to fill niches in between.
These devices' wireless data connections won't be restricted to the Internet. Mobile professionals will be able to dial into their corporate networks from the road, and traveling salespeople can use the gadgets to check inventory back at the warehouse. Some enthusiasts will subscribe to private services that use wireless networks to transmit stock quotes, sports scores, weather reports and even horoscopes.
But industry analysts, executives and engineers agree that the Internet--especially e-mail--is driving the cross-pollination of phones and computers.
"The Internet is the killer app for wireless data," said David Christopher, the product manager in charge of the forthcoming Palm VII hybrid at 3Com's Palm Computing unit.
By 2002, nearly 12.6 million U.S. consumers--including 1.3 million Californians--will be spending more than $5 billion to connect devices such as the Palm VII to invisible phone networks, according to Telecompetition, a market research firm in San Ramon, Calif. That's four times the number of people who used wireless data networks last year, according to the firm.
Why such rapid growth? Plenty of players have an interest in propelling this fledgling industry.
For wireless phone companies, the new breed of products means more minutes of network use and therefore more revenue. Consumer electronics makers will create more devices to sell, and software companies will write code to run them. Other firms are springing up to supply content for the gadgets.
And for consumers, the blending of mobile phones and PCs means it's easier to stay in constant contact with their data.
"It doesn't matter if you're a business person or an average consumer--everyone's mobile," said General Magic Chief Executive Steve Markman, whose Sunnyvale, Calif., company makes virtual assistant software. "They've all got to be able to get access to key information and messages wherever they are."
The big question is what kind of device they will use to retrieve those messages. Few envision all-in-one offerings--like the Nokia 9000 Communicator--becoming popular because they are seen as too bulky and expensive.
"You just wind up compromising tons of functionality when you try to build it into one device," said Warren Allen, senior product planner for Toshiba in Irvine, one of five companies developing a wireless data standard called Bluetooth. "You get all sorts of users saying, 'I wish they had saved me $100 by leaving out this thing that I'm never going to use.' "
Nokia says plenty of its customers are willing to carry a bigger device with a full keyboard that can perform many of the functions of a mobile office, including faxing, e-mail and scheduling. Technological improvements will allow the company to produce a smaller, lighter Communicator without giving up any functionality, said Haroon Alvi, director of business development for Nokia Mobile Phones in Irving, Texas.
But others, such as Andy Seybold, chairman of the Portable computer and Communications Assn. in Boulder Creek, Calif., insist that combination devices tend not to be as popular with consumers as application-specific products.
"The only combination device the American public has bought in great numbers is the clock radio," Seybold said.
Instead, the market will be dominated by data-centric communicators that have some voice capabilities and voice-centric smart phones that have some data capabilities, said Alasdair Manson, director of evangelism for Symbian, a London-based joint venture of mobile phone giants Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia and portable PC maker Psion.
On the communicator side, the most widely anticipated product is 3Com's Palm VII. The device, currently in field trials, will combine the functions of a standard Palm hand-held organizer with a wireless connection for Web and intranet access and two-way messaging. The product is expected to launch later this year with a price tag of less than $800, Christopher said.
Meanwhile, computer features have been creeping into mobile phones since wireless carriers switched on their digital networks. Soon those features will turn phones into portable Internet terminals.
San Diego-based Qualcomm has licensed the Palm software and will incorporate into its pdQ smart phone, due out by summer. Nextel and Motorola are teaming up with Silicon Valley software firms Netscape and Unwired Planet to make Internet-ready phones as well.