Of Wireless Webs and Talking Dogs

The wireless Web is a whole lot like a talking dog: you’re so amazed it can say anything at all that you can almost forgive it for not having anything to say.

When VC Watch first profiled PDA portal Avantgo back on Aug. 6 1999, (Reading Palms: The Future of Content is Small) your humble columnist was still tethered to a landline when it came to data, having been burned four years ago with a Megahertz cellular laptop modem that rarely sustained a connection (Cellular One) for more than five minutes at a time and when it did operated mostly in a retro-’80s 2,400-baud mode.

But when AvantGo pulled down $18.2 million in venture financing — most of it in June 1999 from a consortium that included Microsoft, 3Com, Hambrecht & Quist Venture Capital, Adobe Ventures, 21st Century Internet Venture Partners, Fayez Sarofim & Co., and a group of undisclosed private individuals — VC Watch decided to take another personal side-trip into data without wires. What I found was an early-adopter’s nightmare filled with half-baked schemes, user-hostile web sites and not-quite-ready-for-prime-time devices. It was enough to make the wireless web feel a whole lot like the bad old days when CPM was the OS king and Wordstar 1.0 was state of the art.

VC Watch salivated over the new Palm VII until Icaught sight of their connection prices: Palm.Net unmercifully eviscerates the bank accounts of its captive Palm VII users, charging them $9.99 per month for an unbelievably stingy 50KB of data traffic which, Palm.Net says, amounts to about 150 Palm organizer screens. The Palm.Net site says that this breaks down into a typical usage comprised of: 30 messages, 20 stock quotes, 10 sports scores, 10 traffic reports, and 10 weather updates. Even their “volume” plan punishes Palm VII users by charging them $39.99 for a miserly 300KB per month! And if this wasn’t reason enough to punt on the Palm VII, Palm.Net users are enslaved by Palm.Net’s proprietary e-mail service which can’t receive e-mail from existing e-mail accounts. These two major albatrosses plus the limited service area sent us looking for alternatives. Not wishing to be a chump, I bought a Palm IIIx, signed up for lots of cool content channels on AvantGo (more about which later) and pined for a solution that didn’t require checking my common sense at the portal.

That day was not long in coming. In December, Motorola introduced a new TimePort version of their tiny StarTac phone that boasted of being both web-ready and capable of serving as a wireless modem for both Palms and laptops. This had possibilities. I had already rejected “Web-ready” wireless phones after deciding that the tiny ones with Lilliputian displays were too limited and the ones with larger (but still smaller-than-Palm) displays were too unwieldy.

But this had possibilities: If I could use the StarTac to make the Palm IIIx a wireless web device, I could do everything the Palm VII could, do it cheaper, not be tied to their proprietary e-mail address and get a nifty phone as well.

It worked and worked without pain. Even though the TimePort’s speed is limited to 14.4 kbps, that’s more than fast enough for wirelessly sending and receiving email using all three of my existing accounts and for downloading Palm-edited web pages. Plus, I can log on in a significantly larger coverage area than Palm.Net — in fact anywhere in the Sprint PCS national coverage area and since the TimePort can handle analog cellular, anywhere that has cell phone coverage. When logged on through the Sprint PCS system, I pay $0.10 per minute — no per KB fees. And because long-distance is free, I can dial into my local home POPs and not worry about looking for a local number when I’m traveling.

However, in the process of using the system, VC Watch discovered some major flaws in AvantGo, its web site and customer service — flaws that can only hurt the company’s ability to compete.

As it turned out, AvantGo’s web site, which worked so well when all I did was download content into my Palm via my desktop’s Internet connection, began to stumble badly in the wireless world. My Palm/TimePort combination flawlessly logged on via Sprint PCS, sent and received e-mail, synched without problem with AvantGo to download my selected content channels. However, it only occasionally functioned with real-time, interactive wireless services. Sometimes while connected to the Internet using AvantGo’s browser, MapQuest gives me a map and StockSmart gives me a quote. Sometimes not. Trying to solve this real-time problem shoved me into AvantGo’s customer support system and that’s where the real fun began.

To begin with, AvantGo has no tech support phone number. None. As a result, even the simplest query begins by filling in the blanks of a HUGE 30-field form filled with all sorts of information that was previously filled out when opening an account. It’s a thoughtless waste of their users’ time to make them re-enter the data. Further, this mega-form asks for information such as the AvantGo software version, PDA operating system and version number: fine as far as that goes, BUT the data is NOT stored. So if you’re forced to write again because a tech never responded to the first query, you need to fill in all the data again because it was not associated with your AvantGo user name (the first field in the form).

Only about half our queries actually got a response from a tech and the average response when it happened was two days. After a month of asking, AvantGo still has no idea why their system works sometimes with MapQuest and other wireless tasks but not all the time. This lack of dependability begins to do the impossible: making Palm.Net look good.

Then there’s the AvantGo browser. It offers no way to mark portions of text in an article so they can be copied and pasted into a memo or e-mail, thus important data downloaded loses much of its usefulness. In addition, the browser does not offer a URL so that a note could be made of the location and the article located via desktop browser.

AvantGo’s system frequently fails to download some pages during sync operations and offers a clumsy and confusing system to administer the user’s selected channels.

Obviously the wireless web field is in the very early stages but AvantGo will need to shape up its system, especially since it is facing competition from newcomer Shadowpack Inc. which launched this week.

Others will learn as well. Trip.Com, for example, is offered through AvantGo and Shadowpack, but has no system for getting a trip itinerary into a traveler’s Palm calendar. Currently that has to be laboriously copied and pasted from the itinerary e-mail into the Palm desktop software and then transferred to the Palm during the next sync. So much better to have that as an automatic download option.

And then there’s my Palm/TimePort combo that I have fallen in love with. Designed, obviously, by Motorola engineers who don’t actually use a Palm. Why “obviously?” If they ever tried to use a Palm wirelessly, they’d have provided a cool little cable to connect from the TimePort to the Palm. But noooooooooo. What you get is a cable from the TimePort to a serial port and a big honking adapter that allows it to connect to the serial port end of a Palm synch cable. So you get three feet of tangled, snaking cable like the set-up on the left side of this photo I took. Nobody makes a cable like the home-brewed one on the right — one that fits conveniently in your pocket/purse/briefcase.

A Motorola spokeswoman said they had never thought of making a cable like that and had no plans to do so. But, face it, anybody wanting wireless Palm access doesn’t look forward to carrying around a bale of cable and connectors. Duh! None of the five custom cable companies I contacted wanted to touch it.

So, being a desperate techno-geek with a talent for tinkering with hardware (and not wanting to cannibalize the existing cables that connect to my laptop) I sent Sprint $107.74 for another TimePort to laptop cable, obtained another Palm hotsync cable ($26.45 with shipping and tax) then devoted almost four hours to tracing the pin connections and conducting microsurgery with tweezers and heat-shrink tubing to connect the painfully thin wires inside the cables to be joined.

The current requirement to plug in a soldering iron to make what should have been a totally obvious necessity illustrates that the wireless web is at the same stage of development as personal computers circa 1982. And just like the Kaypro II and the rest of my early adopter purchases, I have no doubt that the TimePort and Palm will soon rest in the same corner of mini-storage amid my shrine to obsolete technology. That much is to be expected. But the real question for today’s players in this market — Motorola, Palm, AvantGo, Sprint, Shadowpack, Palm.Net, Trip.Com, along with their competitors and investors is, which of them will move fast enough to soar and which will find their rightful places in history at the bottom of a brown kraft grocery bag with a stack of 300-baud modems.

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