Data, downloads and Microsoft

The company taps VoiceStream Wireless and Verizon Wireless to debut its Windows-powered PocketPC devices in the United States.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
4 min read
Microsoft has tapped VoiceStream Wireless and Verizon Wireless to debut a Windows-powered PocketPC device in the United States, the company announced Monday at the 2002 Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association conference.

The "Thera," which will cost about $800, tops a list of new products and services that will debut this week as thousands of cellular-industry executives, battered by miserable financial conditions from 2001, look for a turnaround this year.

Along with scores of new phones, most of the thousands of companies descending on Orlando, Fla., this week will be selling high-speed, wireless Internet access and services that let a cell phone download software. Cingular Wireless announced Monday that it is expanding its high-speed wireless network to New York state and California by June. Verizon announced it's selling cell phones that can download games and other programs using Qualcomm's new BREW software.

The new products and services might not be what the 140 million U.S. cell phone customers want most--better voice-call coverage. Telephone companies are rebuilding their networks now to expand the number of cell phone calls at any one time. They hope high-speed Internet services, like Friend Finder, which can locate a person by zeroing in on their cell phone's location, will help earn back some of their construction costs.

"It'll be the year for data," said Cingular spokeswoman Monica Mears.

Carriers' reliance on data services to make money--especially in the United States--is a gamble, analysts say. Most Americans haven't begun using text messaging even though it's been on the market nearly a year.

"Customers are not quite ready yet," said Michele Thenegal, director of U.S. marketing for LG InfoComm, which unveiled five new phones sold by Verizon and Sprint. "Most people still use their handsets as voice devices. When all these high-speed networks are launched, it will be a different game. But at this point, it's strictly voice."

Thera spreads out
Microsoft unveiled its first agreements with U.S. carriers to sell Thera, which runs on Sierra Wireless phone software.

Verizon will introduce Thera in June, and sell it exclusively for a month. Then Sprint will begin selling it in July, according to a representative for Audiovox, which helped design and build Thera.

VoiceStream will also start selling and offering service to PocketPC devices, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft will confront a host of other companies also battling for dollars in the competitive phone/PDA market. Nokia plans to unveil the Communicator sometime in the next few months. The Thera will also battle Handspring's Treo, plus an updated version of Kyocera's PDA phone.

Microsoft's battle plan for the phone relies on people using new wireless Internet service from VoiceStream called iStream. The company said it also has an agreement with Handango to sell software programs to download over VoiceStream's cell phone network and onto Microsoft PocketPC devices.

Lost and found
Among the new services analysts think might rake in billions of dollars a year are "location-based" services, and they make their debut at this year's CTIA.

Intel General Manager Ron Smith is expected to demonstrate "Friend Finder" during a CTIA keynote address Monday. The service, created by wireless software maker SignalSoft, lets someone discover where her friend is located at any time by determining the location of her friend's cell phone. The friend must subscribe to the service and agree to be found.

While just a demonstration, the day isn't far off--perhaps as soon as this summer--when someone can dial a few numbers, send a few wireless messages, and find out where people are, according to Eric McCabe, SignalSoft vice president of marketing.

Location-based services have been in development for years, but 2002 is finally the time when phones with global positioning system (GPS) devices are available on the market. Location-based services rely on getting information from GPS chips inside phones.

Sprint is already selling phones with GPS inside, and more will be introduced Monday.

Some privacy rights groups are already seething about location-based services. They are concerned about what carriers plan to do with the information about a cell phone's location.

New services brewing
Verizon Wireless becomes the first U.S. carrier to use new cell phone software from Qualcomm called BREW, or binary runtime environment for wireless. The company plans to launch commercial service using BREW in San Diego, Calif., and nationally, by June.

BREW is software that Qualcomm developed and is the company's answer to Java, which Nokia intends to put into 100 million cell phones next year.

Wireless carriers hope to sell new software programs--like games or office functions--for these phones to download. BREW is already available on phones in Korea, where downloading videos or still photographs are among the more popular services.

Verizon will sell two new phones, including one with a color handset that will be able to take part in any BREW services that carriers offer.