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Handheld Web applications face challenges

Wireless email is finally beginning to realize some of its promise, but there are still some major hurdles to be cleared.

Wireless email is finally beginning to realize some of its promise, but there are still some major hurdles to be cleared.

Email and Net access for cell phones, pagers and handhelds have long been touted as the potential "killer app," for devices that connect wirelessly. But until recently, the services associated with each of these devices required users to set up separate email accounts. With the exception of some unwieldy workarounds, users generally needed to maintain separate email addresses for each device.

With the advent of a range of new services from companies such as American Mobile, OmniSky, Bell South Mobile Services and Thin Air Apps, these devices are suddenly becoming a practical means of accessing important information when away from the desk. However, the rise of these new services does not mean they've solved all existing problems with wireless data, analysts caution.

These types of services are also not super cheap: American Mobile's costs $59 per month, and the special RIM device is nearly $500.

In addition to the relatively pricey nature of the plans, analysts question whether cell phone or pager users are in any big hurry to upgrade their existing devices and services.

"There are already 76 million cellular subscribers. That's a lot of replacement units," said Ray Jodoin, a senior wireless industry analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group, noting that to a large extent, Web developers and content producers have not kept up with advances in wireless Internet access.

"For content sites, it's not just a simple translation process--it's not just as simple as stripping out the graphics," Jodoin explained. "You have to pick and choose the essential information that you want the user to get." Web developers who already have to create different versions of their sites for each Web browser may be hesitant to recreate their content again for another platform, especially one still in flux.

"It's nice to get on your pager, but is it really a compelling piece of information?" asked Jodoin.

That flux is apparent in the ongoing effort to hammer out standards for presenting Internet data on wireless devices, as well as updating the wireless network infrastructure in the United States. Unlike in Europe, where there is one network throughout the continent, the U.S. wireless infrastructure is far more spotty. In addition, Web developers must decide whether they will create content using Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) or a proprietary technology, like Palm's technology.

"It's got to get some critical mass before they can show it's going to be viable in the consumer market," Jodoin said.

But the caveats are not slowing many firms. American Mobile, for instance, recently introduced a service that allows subscribers to access their existing email on a special version of the RIM device. The service, called eLink, is currently sold through American Mobile's Web site but will later be available through SkyTel.

Other services include Thin Air Apps, which allows Palm VII handheld users to receive their regular email on Palm Computing's wireless handheld computer. When first introduced, the Palm VII was only able to offer separate email.

"We're seeing an increased trend not only to be able to send and receive messages from your device, but to be able to have those devices linked to your desktop," said Naqi Jaffrey, a wireless data analyst with market research firm Dataquest.

Although the integration between corporate or personal email servers and small devices like the RIM (Research in Motion) two-way pager or a Web-enabled cell phone is not yet seamless, the sector is quickly heating up, Jaffrey says. "We believe that there are many companies that are also trying to become players in this arena," he said.