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Mobile Internet Products May Have Missed Their Target

September 11, 2000|Charles Piller

In case you've squandered your summer on baseball and surfing, it's time to wake up to the latest tech paradigm shift: the mobile Internet. Analysts have recently predicted that more than 1 billion cell phones capable of Internet access will be in use by 2003.

This nascent wireless future has triggered buzzwords such as transformative, m-commerce, pervasive and multi-modal. But judging by the offerings at the Demo Mobile conference last week in Pasadena, wireless acolytes would do well to maintain a long view.

The conference was primarily for products that won't be on the market for three to 12 months. Many of their makers will change course or go out of business by then, so the idea was to display embryonic ideas--bright or dim--in search of fresh capital or buzz.

Wireless Internet devices outnumbered humans at this conference by 3 to 1. So the show got off to a strange start when the emcee, mimicking an airline flight attendant, asked everyone to turn off their cell phones. He was concerned that cellular signals would disrupt the jury-rigged network needed for onstage demonstrations.

"Free at last," he said, with humorous irony, as hundreds of phones clicked off.

The silliness began in earnest with the onstage demos.

Learnout & Hauspie, a voice-recognition software company, showed an "intelligent assistant"--a cordless Internet organizer, about the size and weight of a notebook computer, that only a technologist could love. This was the latest in a long line of touch-screen based Web tablets that have been highly touted, but rarely shipped, in the last couple of years. (This one will not be available until 2002.) The bulky, complex device responds to voice commands in a goofy-sounding computerized voice that can also remind you when to take your medicine or warn you if your flight has been canceled.

Unfortunately, to be useful, it becomes an obnoxious interloper.

A group of Intel engineers demonstrated how to connect a batch of computers wirelessly using Bluetooth--a new wireless protocol that is expected to come pre-installed in most computers and information appliances within a few years. The time lag is fortunate because the demonstration was so incomprehensible that it could take a few years for the average person to duplicate.

Technology luminary Philippe Kahn, founder of the start-up LightSurf Technologies, showed off the gift for the photo buff who has everything: a tiny digital camera that connects to an Internet cell phone. Beginning early next year, you can take a few snapshots of little Jimmy and instantly e-mail them to Mom (assuming you have the patience to wait for photos to upload using the ponderously slow cell phone connection)--only $500 for the camera-phone combination.

In the "technology searching for a purpose" category was Ecrio's "rich instant messaging," which allows you to jot down handwritten scrawls on your Palm computer screen, then send them to another Palm or to a cell phone. Try reading that tiny scrawl on your cell phone.

EncrypTix showed software that allows you to order tickets from a Palm device or Internet phone, then beam those e-tickets to a machine at the movie theater. It brought to mind my local theater, which has an "express" automated teller for buying tickets; the machine is so unreliable that the theater has taken to posting a support technician beside it just to keep the line moving. The EncrypTix scheme is three times as complex.

InViso showed $500 "Mission: Impossible"-style eyeglasses that offer a full Web screen view when connected to your laptop. The idea is to save battery life on those long air trips because the glasses use less power than a normal screen. Not silly enough? The company is also building a Web browser called ECase, for Realtors or other mobile professionals to use to replace a notebook computer.

Unfortunately, the InViso prototypes (due out early next year) are ergonomic abominations. The ECase product (imagine squinting into a bulky cell phone) is operated by thumbing a postage-stamp-sizetouch screen.

Challenged to come up with a killer wireless application for the car, one expert suggested an MP3 attachment for a hand-held computer--for listening to music via a headset. Uh oh. The moderator pointed out that driving with a headset on is a $500 fine in California.

You get the idea. The show had everything--from the small and awkward to the hopelessly complex--all featuring dubious utility or impracticality.

Ironically, the device that stole the show has nothing to do with the Internet.

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