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As anyone who attempts it on a regular basis knows, the wireless Internet right now is a slow, uncertain place to do business or entertain yourself. Some services, like the

Palm

(PALM)

-branded one that comes with the wireless Palm VII, seem to behave as reliably as a toddler.

Yet no one can deny that wireless Palm service is improving (heck, wireless Palm service didn't even exist a year ago) and that entities as diverse as

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report

and

Slashdot

, a division of

VA Linux Systems

(LNUX)

, have constructed clever wireless applications that are useful -- if the gods of wireless connectivity happen to smile on you.

Granted, these useful applications are relative rarities -- most of the built-in Palm Web applications hover on the border between useless and colossally useless -- but they do indicate that it's possible to deliver something worthwhile in the new medium.

Which companies will be the wireless equivalents of the

America Onlines

TheStreet Recommends

(AOL)

and

EarthLinks

(ELNK)

delivering these applications to your PC, laptop or wireless device? The battle has only begun.

The device side is likely to be dominated in the short term by hardware providers, who have so much riding on wireless Net service becoming pervasive, and their regional phone company partners. (

BellSouth

(BLS)

, for example, administers the Palm wireless network.) There are huge challenges facing these players, in part because the display technologies on these devices are astonishingly nonstandard. The devices have screens of different sizes and shapes and have differing input mechanisms, connectivity protocols and purposes. In addition, there's the enormous question of how much information can be loaded into these devices in a useful or entertaining way. Pager devotees or cell-phone advocates may boast that they have Net access on their devices, but there's a limit to how rich a Web experience you can have if your device sports only a two-line display.

The PC side in the Web-access race is farther along, even if the race isn't occurring at

Evel Knievel

speeds. Much of the action has been on the local side, letting nodes on a LAN (local area network), which is connected to the broader Net via traditional means, communicate wirelessly. Wireless LAN schemes from

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report

and

Intel

(INTC) - Get Intel Corporation Report

are promising. Start-ups like the

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation Report

-funded

Tut Systems

(TUTS)

, with a wireless angle but not a wireless focus, are indicative of what's to come: They seek to solve the on-site wireless problem without confronting the more difficult issue of a wireless off-site connection. That's fine for desktop PCs that aren't going anywhere.

But what about those not in one place all the time? Notebook PCs are ubiquitous. Early services like

RadioMail

and

WyndMail

brought wireless email to the PC, using devices like

3Com's

(COMS)

bulky

AllPoints

modem, but service areas were limited and customers wanted more than just email delivered wirelessly.

Better modems have arrived, as well as services that seek to be more encompassing.

Metricom

(MCOM)

offers the

Ricochet

service, which gives straight Net connections to laptops. It works only in specific local areas. Unlike some other wireless solutions, which work with satellites and transponders, Ricochet works with shoebox-sized transmitters that are attached atop street lights in covered communities, usually with five units per square mile. To get access to these locations, Metricom pays a right-of-way fee and gives local government and community groups inexpensive access to the service. Available in the Seattle and San Francisco areas, with Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia on the way, Metricom is in the midst of upgrading its network from slow, 28.8k speed to a more acceptable 128k speed. (For a point of comparison, your home computer's dial-up modem most likely offers 56k speed.) Those interested in this upgrade can go to Metricom's

Web site and see thrilling images of workers shipping and installing transmitters.

Competitors may have different means of transmission, but they're following the same pattern of starting in a local area and expanding. Typical is

AirLink

, which is expected to deliver wireless Net service to Florida cities Fort Myers and Naples next year. Another company worth learning about is

GoAmerica Communications

(GOAM)

, which went public Friday and has both hardware and software services and has offered wireless Internet service for geeks with laptops for years.

But even the relatively established GoAmerica has to deal with the vagaries of current wireless connectivity schemes. Perhaps the wireless company with a killer app is one focused solely on providing infrastructure, not wireless Internet service, the company that wants to be the

Cisco

(CSCO) - Get Cisco Systems, Inc. Report

in this space.

We'll consider some of those players in a future column.

Jimmy Guterman runs The Vineyard Group, an editorial consultancy in Massachusetts. In keeping with TheStreet.com policy, he does not trade individual stocks. He welcomes your feedback at

guterman@vineyard.com.