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Wireless Internet is here and now

It's a little past 5 p.m. on Sept. 2, 2004. You're riding home on the subway, and you decide to check your family's Web page to see what's for supper, and what time the kids have to be at soccer practice. You flip open your cell phone (which is also your address book, calendar, memo pad - not to mention the latest version of the computer game Myst) and hit the Internet button. (It's possible to do this now that the city has wired all the underground routes for cell phones.)

After you browse the Web on your cell phone, you go back to reading your e-book, which has the complete works of your favorite mystery writer, Tony Hillerman. As you bounce up and down in the subway car, the crystal clear screen adjusts so that it's easy to read.

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Sound too much like science fiction? Well, most of the things mentioned are available now, or will be soon. While some cell phones can download e-mail, it has been a problem for them to access the Web, and expensive. All of that will change this month when Sprint PCS launches its "Wireless Web" program.

Using a Sprint PCS phone, users can connect to special text-only versions of popular Web sites. (Not to mention the one you might design for your family to stay in touch.) This is made possible by the microbrowser built into every phone. Or, if you prefer a "fuller" Internet experience, you'll be able to connect your phone to your laptop and use it as a modem.

Sprint PCS won't be the only company offering this type of service, of course. But what Sprint is counting on is that its pricing structure will win over reluctant customers. For instance, for $60 a month, you will get 300 minutes to use in whatever fashion you desire - either to make local or long distance calls in the US (at no extra expense), to access the Web via the phone, or to use the phone as a modem.

There are some drawbacks. The Sprint PCS phones are expensive. (There is a $99 phone, but it allows for only four lines of text viewing.) And the connection is slow - 14.4 bps. But when you consider how far this technology has come in a short time, it's not a stretch to say that we're only a few years away from faster speeds and perhaps even some graphical capability.

More important, Sprint's Wireless Web is a real breakthrough in information retrieval. One of the knocks against online media has been that it's impossible to read on the bus in the morning, while a print newspaper works just fine. Now, that dynamic has been reversed.

You normally need two hands to read a newspaper - especially if you want to turn a page. But the Wireless Web means you'll only need one hand to make a call, read the latest news updates via the Web, or send e-mail.

This past Monday, Dick Brass, Microsoft vice president for technology, announced at Seybold San Francisco, a software application that will allow you to browse documents on a computer screen that look and read like paper. Microsoft hopes that this software, Microsoft Reader, will be extensively used by the e-book manufacturers.

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Perhaps more interesting than the new product announcement, however, was what Mr. Brass had to say about the future of print. He quoted Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, who said the development of e-book technology was like a "loopy comet" that goes around the earth every 10 years, but gets a little closer every time. Brass said though, that the cycle was more like five to seven years, and the comet was very close.

In an overview of the technology, Brass outlined a future where, by 2002, e-books will use screens with a resolution of almost 600 dpi (dots per inch). The current Web screen has a resolution of 72 dpi. By 2005, there would be $1 billion worth of e-titles, and maybe 250 million people worldwide reading e-books. By 2008, Brass said, e-titles will outsell print titles. And 10 years in the future, most authors will self-publish, allowing readers the latest work from the author's Web site.

Meanwhile, publishing companies will return to the role of editor and promoter. The e-book of 2009 would weigh 8 ounces, run 24 hours without a charge, have a flexible, readable screen, and contain enough memory to hold 4 million books - or every page of every newspaper published in the US.

Brass joked this will probably force paper manufacturers to start an ad campaign to bring people back to books, based on nostalgia for "Real books, from real trees, for real people." Brass ended by saying that e-books would complete the work that made printing on paper so fabulous, and replace paper itself.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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