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At wireless conference, silly services rule

reporter's notebook Concerned about coverage? It's a good thing you didn't go to CTIA; people there were busy playing "Swordfish."

reporter's notebook SAN FRANCISCO--Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonators are leaving voice mails for reporters, and a GPS-based game has people walking around while staring at their handset displays. Yes, cell phone owners, it's silly season.

Those wondering why long-standing cell phone coverage gaps never get fixed or what gives with the latest suspiciously named fee did well to avoid the showroom of the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment 2004 conference here this week.

Because those troubles disappear on the showroom floor. In this small universe of about 1,000 wireless executives, cell phones are mini PCs that have access to ubiquitous Internet connections. The executives are here to talk about the latest cool wireless services, which will, they believe, be key to the industry's long-term survival--not humdrum things like getting a signal.

So what's hot? If breadth of offerings is any indicator, it's silly messages. There's a new cell phone game based on trading humorous insults, like "you're momma's so fat..." And an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator left messages for dozens of reporters on Monday, announcing Cingular Wireless' new Vblast, which dials any number of phones and plays the same prerecorded message.

Some messages were serious, though. There's talk of e-mailing cell phones with Amber Alerts about missing persons by June 2005.

The Segway award for pedestrian hazards goes to "Swordfish," a game for cell phones that use Global Positioning System technology. Pedestrians and motorists beware; the game from Blister Entertainment involves simultaneously walking and staring at a cell phone screen. You play by first locating an area near you where there are schools of virtual fish to catch. Once in the right area, you cast a hook and fish away.

"It's very safe," says a Blister executive.

Some at the conference were psyched about an upgrade for ring tones--too bad the value of the feature is questionable for flip phones, or clamshells. The new thing? Ring tones that are accompanied by graphics. Several distributors are now offering them. The phone displays a pretty image when the ring tone sounds. Nice touch, but not for clamshell phones with just one screen. Once you unfold the phone and expose the screen, you've answered the call--so the ring tone ends.

Want even more out of the blue? Cellular pioneer Craig McCaw kept on bringing up notorious figures from the Middle East. On Monday, it was al-Qaida; McCaw made a reference to the terrorist organization while talking about the longevity of technology. ("No one technology wears out," he told the audience. "Look at Western Union. They are moving money for al-Qaida now.")

McCaw mentioned Osama bin Laden during his more formal keynote address Wednesday, again as part of an example, this time about how technologies can be abused. Bin Laden, McCaw noted, escaped U.S. forces after someone figured out the signal on his satellite phone was being tracked. "It saved his life, at least in that moment in time," McCaw said.