You love your mobile phone, and yet it is a constant reminder of your technical inadequacies. Inside that scrap of black and silver plastic is a communications revolution leaving you in the dust. You've heard that wireless service providers want you to do more than just talk on your cell phone, they want you to be emailing, video phoning and giving patients remote rhinoplasty from an offshore location. Still, you have yet to program your voice mail.
All is not lost.
There's just enough time left before the onset of these futuristic services to make yourself a savvy, cost-conscious customer. In fact, why don't you go ahead and take a year off. That's how long it will be before you have to decide whether you want these services or not. Tune out the prime-time commercial images of empowered goatherds in Marrakesh downloading stock quotes. Spend your time deciding how involved you are willing to be with your mobile phone.
An Alphanumeric Alphabet Soup of Services
Most of the services you've heard about come in the form of crude acronyms -- WAP, 3G, GPRS. These acronyms are clunky nicknames for technologies that cost wireless-phone companies billions to install and operate. Given their cash investment, carriers are unbridled enthusiasts. You, however, are the wily consumer. You do not love WAP -- that's wireless application protocol -- unconditionally. You wouldn't invite 3G into your house if it refused to wipe its shoes. Be fickle.
Current mobile-phone networks (second generation, or 2G in industry parlance) are slothlike and unintelligent because they are designed to carry voice. They open a line for your call and hopefully don't drop it until you have finished. Europe has global system for mobile communications (GSM) networks; the U.S. has less-nimble time-division multiple access (TDMA) networks and hipper,
-backed code-division multiple access (CDMA) networks. Asia and Latin America enjoy both CDMA and GSM, for the most part.
The next generation of networks, namely 3G, or an intermediate 2.5G step called general packet radio service (GPRS), undo the deadly sins of older networks. They squeeze more calls into less space, and they handle data in a more efficient and thereby cost-conscious manner. This explains all the data-rich services you've begun to hear about -- you'll be using your phone like a BlackBerry pager to send and receive email quickly; you'll be sending short messages to your kids when they're at school; and you might just receive advertisements from sweatered sirens beckoning you to the
that you are rapidly approaching on foot.
Fact is, you can already send and receive messages on your cell phone, but so far U.S. consumers haven't embraced the option.
and a host of others will let you receive short messages and send a set number of replies for $4.99 a month or 10 cents apiece. This very instant
, AT&T Wireless,
sell data packages for consumers, ranging from a $5 to $15 monthly add-on to your phone plan plus the cost of a data-capable phone. You can send and receive email, surf bonsai-trimmed Web sites for flight info, and access a calendar and contact list, all at 2G speeds and costs.
Do We Even Care?
Which brings up the father of all doubts: Do U.S. consumers want these services? Roger Entner of The Yankee Group explains that for Americans, the PC comes first, the mobile-data experience second. For Japanese or European consumers who suffer from high communications costs, mobile phones might be a users' first Internet experience. In the U.S. we expect 17 inches of full-screen data luxury. Even on faster 3G networks, pecking out a message into a mobile phone might still be like eating a T-bone steak with chopsticks.
can solve some of those problems by building phones with flip-out keyboards, bigger screens and other amenities designed specifically for 3G. (Note to naive consumer: The days of free phones are gone. Expect to pay $150 to $200 a pop, and the phone could be fashionably late to market. For example, European carriers have their 2.5G GPRS networks ready to go, but Nokia hasn't committed to having a phone available until the fourth quarter.)
Sprint PCS and Verizon are expected to christen nationwide 3G service next year. AT&T Wireless is taking things one city at a time and turned up GPRS service in Seattle for business users with plans ranging from $49.99 to $159.99, voice included. The carrier expects to upgrade 40% of its U.S. network to GPRS by year's end, meaning if you travel out of Seattle, your cool GPRS data service won't follow you. You thought we'd have zippy new data services for Christmas? "We can write to Santa Claus, but I don't think he will answer," Entner says with compassion. "We will get coal instead."
Actually, that's not so bad. It gives you a year to decide whether you want any of this at all.