WHAT CAN YOU REALLY do -- right now -- on the wireless Web? Well, today I'm going to live la vida wireless in New York City, the beating heart of the untethered world. Armed with a Palm Vx Handheld with an OmniSky modem and a Sprint PCS cell phone, I'm going to schedule meetings, confer with my editors, arrange appointments, check my stocks, make dinner reservations, buy presents for my family, and get in, out and around the Big Apple with Jetson-age ease. That is, I'm going to try.
Outside my 5th-floor window at the Soho Grand Hotel looking down on Canal Street, New Yorkers bundled in hats and scarves on this December day are scurrying between the gridlocked cars. I fire up my Palm and Sprint PCS phone with wireless Internet. The batteries are charged, and I am ready to take on Manhattan. First, however, I need a cup of coffee. Where to go? I'm sure there are dozens of coffee shops in the area, but I need to head uptown to 44th Street for my first meeting with Mark Caron, CEO of MobileSpring, a company that develops wireless applications. I remember that the Starbucks Coffee Store Locator, which I have downloaded to the Palm, is, according to Palm's website, one of the most popular applications along with an e-mail service called ThinAirMail.
In front of the hotel, I ask the doorman if it's possible to call a cab on a Palm. He laughs and says, "No way -- not in this town," and quickly flags down a taxi. Hurtling up 6th Avenue in the cab, I click on the Starbucks locator on my Palm using my stylus. I type in the address of my first meeting in Palm's Graffiti writing system. Within seconds, two Starbucks addresses pop up, the first on the corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street, where I ask the taxi to stop. Sure enough, there's the Starbucks. Unfortunately, it has no tables. The locator doesn't provide those kinds of details. "There's another one three blocks uptown," a woman says to me with a knowing look.
Walking along the avenue, I type a brief message to my editor on my mobile phone, using AOL's Instant Messenger system. "Starbucks located," I write. My phone instantly starts beeping. "Cool," he responds. We could have just called each other, of course, but he's in the middle of a meeting. This is pleasantly subversive -- I can see why teens in Scandinavia are addicted to text messaging. I would have loved this in high school. It's a little awkward at first, though. (Typing the word hello, for example, involves 13 keystrokes. To type the letter "L" you need to hit the "5" key three times.) The exchange is interrupted by a call from my husband, who informs me that everything is fine on the home front. I promise gifts.
At the second Starbucks, with a grande house coffee and raspberry scone in hand, I check my agenda and click on Barnesandnoble.com's site on the Palm. I figure I can buy a book or CD and have it delivered to my hotel by the end of the day, thereby participating in the dawning age of mobile commerce, or m-commerce. In the middle of searching through CD titles, however, a discouraging message pops up on my screen: "Our apologies. Purchasing from the Palm is currently unavailable. Please visit our webpage to complete your order." Hmm. I could just as easily locate a Barnes & Noble store using the OmniSky service and go there. I realize that I am going to be late for my meeting, so I quickly tap on my Palm to help me find directions to MobileSpring using a service called MapBlast.
I walk out into the cold. "Head north," the instructions begin. Which way is north? I ask a man in a trench coat and hat standing next to me. "That way," he grunts, throwing his arm up for emphasis. I arrive at 120 44th Street after taking only one wrong turn.
In the cramped, dingy offices of MobileSpring, CEO Mark Caron talks about the promise and limitations of wireless communication. Caron says his developers are working on applications that people can use now, such as instant messaging between different types of devices. "There's been a 'gee whiz' factor with wireless," he says. "We need to focus on what's really useful, such as e-mail and messaging, and news and stock information." New York City is emerging as a center for wireless Internet applications, financing and advertising, Caron says, because it's ideally located for deals between the United States and Europe, where the wireless phenomenon is stronger.
Caron, who started his career in General Electric's IS department and went on to help found Omnipoint Communications, says he uses his Internet-enabled Palm VII (he's since moved to a RIM BlackBerry) to check traffic information during his commute from Ridgewood, N.J., or to check for flight delays when he's traveling. "I'm constantly comparing how long it takes wirelessly, and I get mixed results," Caron says. For the moment, he says, most people don't buy things or conduct other transactions like banking or reserving a restaurant table on the wireless Internet. Wireless modems are slow, and coverage is often spotty. In six to 12 months, however, he predicts that we'll be using mobile phones to pay parking meters or buy a Coke from a machine, like they can in Finland. Clearly, we're not quite there.
I enter the subway and try to message my editor again on my cell phone. "In subway and have a signal," I write. "Gotcha, what line are you on?" "The N train," I respond. By the time I reach the subway platform, the signal is lost.
Even if I can't get my gifts wire-lessly, I can at least take advantage of New York City's reputation as a mecca for electronics shopping. I enter The Wiz at 17 Union Square West, a well-known New York-area chain, and head for the camera counter. I kneel down to look at the Nikon Coolpix 950, priced at $799. I pull out my Palm and tap on MySimon.com, a comparison shopping application I had downloaded several days before. After several seconds, MySimon.com comes up with a list of outlets (mostly online) that sell the digital camera for less. A burly store manager approaches me (and the photographer accompanying me) and tells us we can't take pictures in the store without approval from corporate headquarters. He looks like he means business. But as we start to leave, he pulls me aside and asks: "How do you like your OmniSky modem? I'm thinking of getting one myself. What do you think? Should I get one?" I evidently look like a wireless pro. I advise him to shop around.
I try out the Where2Go Public Restrooms Locator application, a guide to the best public toilets in the city. It says Forbes Magazine Galleries has "very nice and clean" restrooms several blocks away with "deco/nautical themes." I don't have time to try these out, however. I'm going to be late for my lunch meeting.
After a brief subway hop, I hurry down Wall Street to meet my friend Caroline, who works for a dotcom. Her company's spacious offices -- complete with mod furniture and lime-colored walls -- don't reflect the tension brought on by recent layoffs. Sitting on a bright blue velour couch, we ponder where to eat while perusing Zagat's restaurant guide on my Palm. We consider an eatery called The 14 Wall Street Restaurant, located on the 31st floor of her building. "Take the elevator up and leave reality below," the Zagat's review begins. Sounds perfect.
From the Plaza Hotel's steps, where stiletto-heeled glitterati prance with cell phones, to Swedish telecom giant Ericsson's research and development "CyberLab NY" in lower Manhattan, the city is beeping and buzzing with gadgetry. Hundreds of Internet entrepreneurs are jockeying to discover applications that could change the ways we do business. Even as the Nasdaq crumbles, hosts of New York financiers are focusing on the wireless Internet. Some of them are eating today at 14 Wall.
Ensconced at our table, surrounded by serious-looking financial types talking about the latest market troubles and postponed IPOs, I take out my mobile phone and Palm. Caroline tells me it's considered uncouth to talk on the phone in such a nice restaurant. PDAs are probably OK, right? While waiting for our sesame shrimp and sautéed scallops to arrive, I try again to buy a CD for my husband. Caroline suggests the latest from a band called Radiohead. Even though I am in a top floor overlooking the Manhattan skyline, I am unable to get a signal to log on to the Barnesandnoble.com site. Seconds later, I successfully log on to my e-mail account and scroll through recent messages from the office. I realize I am completely ignoring my lunch guest. Caroline looks unfazed, but I sense she thinks I'm acting like a jerk. I explain that being a jerk is part of my assignment.
Caroline declines dessert and returns to her office, leaving me to wander lower Manhattan. Surrounded by floor traders who hover in clusters outside the New York Stock Exchange taking cigarette breaks, I decide to check some stock quotes. I take out my mobile phone and log on to the Web by pressing the "minibrowser" option and then Fidelity's site. The shares of my husband's company are higher in midday trading. My joy is tempered by the realization that the share price has fallen 32 percent since the year's high. Not only that, both the Dow and Nasdaq are on their ways to big losses. Visions of early retirement fade quickly. If I had a Fidelity account, I might actually be able to trade shares.
The mammoth FAO Schwarz store at 5th Avenue and 58th Street is pulsating with crowds of holiday shoppers carrying large bags. I push my way through the mobs in search of a present for my son. In the far corner of the lower level, The Emperor's New Groovee, a Sony Playstation game, is listed for $44.95. I pull out my Palm and once again log on to MySimon.com, curious to see if I can get a better deal. Aha! MySimon.com lists the same game for $34.99 at KBKids.com. Of course, that's not including shipping charges. I head upstairs and pick out a toy station wagon. I have finally succeeded in acquiring a gift. My wireless devices, however, had nothing to do with it.
My cab is flying along the East River Drive at about 80 miles an hour. I tighten my seat belt and pull out my Palm. I click on Citysearch.com and proceed to the entertainment section, hoping to buy a ticket to Annie Get Your Gun at the Marquis Theatre. After I choose the type of seat I want, a message pops onto my screen: "The requested content contained an unsupported content type. Note the error and contact the developer of this query." I picture a lonely developer sitting in a windowless office in a Manhattan startup. I imagine storming up to his desk. "I want to see Annie Get Your Gun. Why aren't you supporting my content type?" I demand. The developer bursts into tears.
I am getting tired and cranky. Time to make a coffee stop. The Starbucks locator app comes through again.
Recaffeinated, I enter the Wall Street offices of Mobilocity.net, an IT consultancy that specializes in mobile and wireless technology. Engineers in the company's "mobility lab" are testing gadgets and technologies such as wireless application protocol (WAP), i-Mode wireless Internet service from Japan's NTT DoCoMo and Voice XML, many of which are not quite ready for mass use in the United States. Goran Arbanas, the lab's chief, demonstrates a PocketPC with a streaming video clip from a new sci-fi movie called Red Planet. Arbanas and his colleagues acknowledge that finding the wireless applications that will lead to easy use and mass adoption is so far elusive. "It's a question of finding the compelling applications versus those that are just for show," says Justin Weiss, who was the company's business development manager at the time. Weiss adds that easy transactions such as retail purchases will come later. Mobilocity.net isn't alone. Engineers at several other nearby "labs," including Ericsson's research and development CyberLab NY, are in a race to find the most compelling services. Watching Red Planet will not be one of them.
A crowd of about 300 nattily dressed entrepreneurs and business executives sit like well-behaved schoolchildren before a panel of wireless experts at a midtown gathering titled "The Wireless Revolution: Science Fiction, Reality, or a Little of Both?"
"How many of you use the wireless Web for anything more than e-mail?" a panel member asks. Fewer than half raise their hand. Still, they are clearly eager to learn about the future of the wireless Web from such luminaries as Raj K. Gupta, president and founder of YadaYada, a wireless Web portal; Bob Greene, managing partner at Flatiron Partners, a venture capital firm that specializes in the Internet; and Jason Devitt, CEO and cofounder of Vindigo, a city guide for PDAs. "M-commerce is not e-commerce," Devitt says, noting that many people aren't likely to actually buy things on their devices. You can't replicate the PC for ease of use and security. The key to mobile commerce, he says, is helping the consumer find the nearest store. Couldn't have said it better myself.