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Euro cell phones patched to Net

The Alcatel-Unwired Planet effort will debut in Europe, a further sign that the fragmented U.S. cellular market is stalling new developments.

Alcatel, the Cannes, France-based maker of communications equipment, and Unwired Planet are joining forces to connect European cellular phones to the Internet, a boon for Europeans and a further sign that the fragmented U.S. cellular market is stalling the introduction of new technologies.

Alcatel's new "One Touch" line of cellular phones will offer access to Internet content, email, financial news, and contact databases through the use of a communications technology being advanced by Unwired Planet--in Europe first.

The technology, called the Wireless Application Protocol, allows for a phone's browser to read information from the Internet no matter what kind of basic cellular phone technology is used.

Use of a common technology for sharing information between so-called smart phones and Internet content providers is seen by analysts as a key to jump starting the market for advanced communications devices.

Currently, European cell phones use the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), an international wireless standard that is the basis for one of the more prevalent cellular phone used in the U.S. Alcatel's cell phones would use GSM technology to establish a pipe for data to flow through, while Unwired's technology, in essence, would help the phone understand how to display information.

The U.S. versions of GSM phones, by contrast, can't be used in Europe. And since Europe constitutes a larger and more unified market, companies are introducing advanced communications products abroad first. Analysts estimate that there is a 6 to 12 month lag time between the introduction of new cell phone products in Europe and the U.S.

Still, even as more and more companies bring smart phones to market in Europe, questions remain about how popular the devices will become, especially if the devices do not become easier to use.

Cell phones are getting more affordable, so "The thinking is 'What happens after [a communications company] differentiates on price?' You try to offer value added services" such as Internet access, says Alan Reiter, president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing. But while companies add more functions, customers aren't using all of the functions that a phone already has, he says.

If companies don't make advanced services easy to use, no one will gain significant revenue from the sale of cell phones or associated information services such as stock quote updates.

"Most people don't use most of the functions of cell phones, just like people don't use most functions of a PC because it's too difficult," Reiter says. "A phone that's just a little smarter, with icons, or little buttons that lead you through storing names and redialing would be easier to use, and consumers will spend more money by accessing more services," he believes.

Alcatel's new phones will be demonstrated in March at CeBIT '98, one of Europe's largest computer trade shows.