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AT&T cell phone offers Net access

A step in the right direction, but too flawed to make it into the mainstream.

    AT&T Wireless Services today launched a retail version of a product that ties email and limited Internet content into a special cellular phone, a device two analysts said was a step in the right direction, but riddled with too many shortcomings to make it into the mainstream.

    AT&T's PocketNet service has been available to corporate users for some time now, but only today is being made available to consumers. At $29.95 per month, it offers subscribers unlimited email and some information provided by some 20 Internet content providers.

    Subscribers tap into the information via specially equipped cellular phones made by either Mitsubishi or Samsung. The units sell for $300 and require an additional $25 or more to be activated.

    The phones, which provides normal voice capabilities, also come with a personal organizer that includes a calendar and address book. Information is displayed on a four-line LCD screen that is unable to show graphics. Users enter data via the phone's number pad. It is available in only the top 22 cellular markets, and excludes Atlanta and Los Angeles.

    Two industry analysts said the product is interesting but that its disadvantages will prevent it from being widely adopted.

    "I wonder whether the product misses that mark," said Alan Reiter, president and editor of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, which follows the cellular industry. "I think the chances of [it] entering the mainstream the way AT&T would like it to are slim."

    Reiter explained that he thought consumers would be unwilling to spend $300 to get email and limited Net content when the product comes with such limited display capabilities, varying areas of coverage, and an inconvenient keypad.

    John Ledahl, an analyst at Dataquest, predicted that sales of PocketNet would be below 15,000 over the next eight months. He agreed that the small screen and the limited keypad would prevent PocketNet from being useful to many. Nonetheless, he said it is prudent for AT&T to be integrating the Internet and cellular services.

    "It's another step in the right direction for AT&T to lay the groundwork for true two-way wireless data communication," he said.

    Ken Woo, a spokesman for AT&T, said that some of the criticisms raised were likely to be only temporary. He said, for example, that coverage was likely to be radically expanded in the next few years.

    He also said that PocketNet is being favorably received by those who have tried it.

    "You're going to have people taking shots at us for introducing a product that a lot of people are going to find useful," he said. "Based on what we've seen and just from the 'buzz factor,' I think we've got something here."

    Those providing content for PocketNet include, Bloomberg Online and ESPN SportsZone.