Marconi Goes Online
"Wireless" once meant radio. It may again.

The Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 12, 2001

LAS VEGAS--The television, the compact-disk player, the cell phone--all these gadgets have two characteristics that account for their ubiquity: They do one very useful thing, and they are exceedingly easy to operate. The point seems obvious, but a visit to the annual Consumer Electronics Show here is a reminder of how often it escapes the designers of technology. At this year's show much of the buzz was about wireless Web devices and applications--many of which are either useless or insufferably complex.

In the former category is FunMail, a message system for newfangled cell phones with color displays. Key in a missive to a friend and FunMail will send a cartoon illustrating it, featuring characters designed by animators from Disney and Hanna Barbera. Adam Lavine, FunMail's CEO, says the subscription-based service will cost $2 a month, and he expects to attract some 2.5 million users. It's an imaginative idea artfully presented, but why would anyone pay $24 a year for it?

On the complicated side is the Motorola Accompli. This $600 hand-held "personal communicator" looks like a Lilliputian laptop; flip it open and you can browse the Web in color, write documents, send e-mail and play games. Plug in a headset, and it's a cell phone too. The Accompli is sort of cool, but it's necessarily a compromise--bulkier and less convenient than the typical cell phone, yet too small to be a truly functional computer. The keyboard is so tiny that only an infant could touch-type on it. Adults will have to use their thumbs.

This is a huge drawback, for the keyboard is what makes a personal computer useful. When the first PCs were introduced, back in the mid-1970s, they were complicated and impractical. Hobbyists loved them (I was one); normal folks were indifferent. It wasn't until computers became good enough to replace typewriters--once they were able to display lowercase letters, and tacky dot-matrix printers had given way to elegant inkjets and lasers--that the PC began its march toward omnipresence, freeing us from the tyranny of Wite-Out and endless retyping of drafts.

Today's computers are much more than glorified typewriters. But it is because they are such excellent typewriter-substitutes that they caught on big time. That's why hand-held wireless devices modeled on the PC are probably doomed. There's just no way to build a pocket-size keyboard big enough for two hands.

Would-be wireless entrepreneurs might be better advised to seek inspiration from Marconi. Thousands of radio stations already broadcast or simulcast over the Internet, and two companies, XM and Sirius, were here showing off their forthcoming satellite-based radio services for car and home, available anywhere in America. Both promise 100 channels with CD-quality sound for $9.95 a month.

Assuming consumers can be persuaded to pay for premium radio service, these offerings are eminently mass-marketable. They're useful, simple and a significant improvement on existing technology. But one can imagine a different future for digital radio. As wireless bandwidth expands, perhaps the cell phone will become a sort of superradio, able to access a theoretically limitless number of stations, including prerecorded music and information services, through the Net.

But there's a rub: The sheer number of choices can overwhelm the listener. Developers will have to make the world of digital radio manageable, narrowing the user's options for him. Otherwise this medium may go the way the videocassette recorder almost did. VCRs were originally marketed chiefly as recording devices, and it's now one of society's running jokes that no one can figure out how to program them. Hardly anyone would own a VCR today had not somebody come up with the bright idea of renting tapes.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of ease of use. Even those of us who enjoy playing with new gizmos are only so tolerant of complexity. A few months ago I bought a Creative Labs Nomad Jukebox, a portable music player that stores up to 150 hours of music on a built-in hard drive. I hooked it up to my computer and spent hours "ripping" my CD collection to the Jukebox. When I tried playing music on the thing, though, I found the interface maddening. It has a tiny, seven-line LCD readout and a set of buttons, the operation of which is often counterintuitive.

Then I noticed that the CD-ripping software had automatically copied all my music to my computer's hard drive as well, so I downloaded a program to play it. Now when I want to listen to a song, I just find it with Windows Explorer and double-click. It's much easier than fussing with the Jukebox, which now sits around collecting dust--a fate that no doubt awaits many of the new products rolled out at the Consumer Electronics Show.

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