News in Your Pocket?

Article excerpt

James Derk is the computing editor of the Evansville (Ind.) Courier.

NOT YET, BUT HAND-HELD DEVICES ARE BEING DEVELOPED

Consumers are growing accustomed to using hand-held communication devices - cell phones, pagers and small computers. As usage grows, the demand for news from these devices may increase.

Planes, trains and automobiles . . . phones, pagers and hand-held computers. It's no secret that the use of wireless personal communication devices is exploding throughout the world. Just look around you to see that people are more "in-touch" today than ever before - at the airport, on the train and on the highway.

Any doubts about the importance of wireless communications vanished in March when the PanAmSat Corp.'s Galaxy IV satellite went belly-up, knocking out service to 90% of the country's 50 million pagers. Everyone from physicians to pet nannies struggled to find alternative communication methods until service could be restored.

But despite great strides in technology and the march of journalists onto the Internet over the last five years, few of us use wireless devices as a source of news content. To be sure, there's a burgeoning niche market for wireless content delivery - stock quotes, news headlines and sports scores sent to digital pagers, for example - and that's becoming big business for CNN and other "pager content providers." Still, we have yet to see the great revolution of the "digital tablet newspaper" that many predicted we'd have by now.

Instead, today's users appear to be enamored by "palm" devices such as 3Com's line of PalmPilot devices that can send and receive e-mail, keep schedules and hold addresses. More than 3 million PalmPilots have been sold already, giving the unit a 66% market share in the hand-held segment. The Palm III, at $399, has been flying off the shelves since its introduction in March, thanks in part to its ability to "beam" content to other nearby Pilots using infrared technology.

Its success has launched a series of competitors, including two different lines of hand-held computers running versions of Microsoft Windows CE -- one with a keyboard and one that uses a stylus like the PalmPilot. The main benefit of the units is size; they measure 4 inches by 7 inches and weigh only about a pound. As prices have been dropping (some units can be had for $100), more and more content providers have been looking at the devices as potential receivers for news content.

Commerce Is Expected Before News

Once providers finish wiring areas for fast Internet access, experts expect such "Internet Appliances" to really take off in popularity. Many people will use them to buy products on the Web, which will spur additional product development.

Electronic commerce transactions on the Web will increase 40-fold and the number of users will quadruple by 2002, predicts Frank Gens, senior vice president of International Data Corp., a prominent Internet research firm in Framingham, Mass. Gens boldly predicts that the appliances will be so common that by 2001, PCs will lose their position as the dominant Internet-access devices as the market is flooded with hand-held computers, network computers, WebTV, gaming consoles and so forth. IDC further estimates that these new generations of simple but powerful consumer Internet-accessing appliances will account for nearly half of all Web access devices shipped in the U.S. in four years -- up from an anemic 4% today. IDC said bandwidth -- seen as the key limit to rapid growth of the Internet -- will be widely available and competitively priced by then. People won't have to "dial-in" to the Internet; the network will simply exist on the device.

The question for newsrooms: Can the devices evolve into the "electronic tablets" the newspaper industry tested about a decade ago? No way, says Roger Fidler, the father of the digital tablet and former director of Knight Ridder's famed experiment into digital tablet publishing. …