Public Net-surfing needn't be obvious
Recently, I began looking at mobile Internet connectivity solutions. Er, I mean I was shopping for a gadget that would let me go on-line anywhere, anytime. All the sales material I've been reading has been skewing my vocabulary toward vapid hyperbole and meaningless catch phrases. However, my wallet has remained untouched by those marketers' blandishments, at least so far. All I wanted was to find out what was available, and I discovered there are very few choices, just some interesting fringe machines and the hopeful promise of a better tomorrow.
Now, I am aware that there is a kind of Net access available through most cellphones. Even my ancient phone has mini-browser software. But that micro-Net access is not what I want. The selection of information is very limited. I want to get onto the real Internet and look at real Web pages, not scroll through endless screens of movie listings and weather summaries 12 words at a time. And don't get me started on the total uselessness of a 20-minute-delayed stock price quote; I'd rather pick up yesterday's business section off the floor of a late-night bus to do my financial planning-it's just as relevant, and maybe there'll be a cartoon on the other side of the page.
I am also aware there are devices called laptop computers that can use radio modems or high-speed WiFi access offered by services like FatPort (or provided for free by people with wireless routers who are too stupid to turn on the security features). Yeah, those are great. Big screens, fast downloads, but laptops are not very convenient to use if you're not sitting down. They're awkward to handle and they're not very subtle-people notice when you use them. Plus, even the smaller models are kind of big and heavy to constantly lug around, and they're expensive, so you have to carry more weaponry than usual when walking around the city with them.
No, I'm interested in a discreet device that's not a pain to carry everywhere. There is a class of sub-notebook computers, but I haven't looked at them yet because they're still a bit too big and obvious, except for the expensive tablet models. Instead, I went straight to the PDAs (personal digital assistants), those small hand-held computers marketed to businesspeople. Many of those can use radio modems or WiFi to go on-line, and the screen sizes and resolution can be very impressive. Unfortunately, I promptly ignored every PDA that didn't have a keyboard and a telephone built in, which meant I only really looked at two widely available devices, neither of which won me over. I think I'll revisit the PDA shelves someday with more of an open mind.
The two common devices (offered by the major cellular providers) are Research in Motion's BlackBerry and the palmOne Treo. Mind you, the BlackBerry is more of an e-mail device than a Web browser (you only get the text from Web pages), and the screen is small. Plus, people I know who have one always call it the "CrackBerry" because they can't stop using it, and the last thing I need in my life is more of that crap going on. Nice keyboard, though, if you don't have meaty fingers.
The Treo is a truly full-featured device, practically a complete computer. It's certainly a gutsy PDA, which means it does at least two dozen things I don't need but would be paying for anyway. The cost? The outgoing Treo 600 is as low as $200 from Rogers (with service plan, after you get a $350 mail-in rebate) while they last, which is an exceptional deal. I'm not crazy about the keyboard, and the colour screen is only 160 pixels by 160 pixels, but, hell, that's a lot of machine (plus a phone) for only $200. The reason it's so cheap is that the Treo 650 has arrived. The keyboard is better and the screen has four times the resolution (320 by 320). I presume the guts have been souped up too, but the $550 price tag (and that's with a service-plan discount) is more than I'm interested in spending.
Ultimately, I'm not really a PDA guy. Otherwise, I figure I would've bought one by now. I'm sure I'd end up using some of the features, but I'd rather not pay extra for those just to get Internet access. Okay, maybe I got a little too fascinated with the idea of combining a cellphone and browser in the same unit (and thus overlooked some ordinary PDAs that might be more suitable), but I really expected to find something useful from the big communications companies. Instead, they offer dozens of gimmicky telephones with no useful Net access, various BlackBerry models, and maybe the Treo.
To me, that looks like a huge market gap. The access methods are here. There are radio modems, wireless digital phone networks, WiFi ports, and now there's the potential for high-speed radio connections. In May, Kamloops will become the first Canadian city with a WiMAX network, offering speeds of up to three megabits per second to anyone within 25 kilometres of the broadcast tower. So the infrastructure to carry data exists. Some days I can almost feel it passing through me, tantalizingly out of reach. Where are the machines to access that flow? Why can't we buy them yet?
Answering that took me to the fringes, which I'll get into next week. And, yes, that's when I'll discuss the Sidekick/hiptop, so there's no need to get your little thumbs beavering away on an indignant e-mail to the editor. Besides, it'll all be like, text message abbreviations, and I'll be like, "Hey, someone buy this kid some frigging vowels."