On more than one occasion, Jeff Grieves has gone to the airport to pick up a friend flying in to see him only to learn that the flight was delayed and no one at the ticket counter could say when it might arrive.
He doesn't worry about such things anymore. Today, Grieves confronts the unanswered questions surrounding flight delays by whipping out his cellular telephone and using a wireless Internet connection to learn not only a flight's true status but also when it should land.
"With two or three buttons you can enter the flight number and find out where a plane is in the air," says Grieves, a technology developer and researcher at Emagination in Baltimore.
If you can check something quickly on the Internet through your personal computer at home, such as a stock quote, movie time or sports score, you can pretty easily do so through a cellular telephone equipped with Wireless Application Protocol technology.
Led by Sprint PCS with AT&T;, Verizon Wireless and Nextel Communications not far behind, America's mobile telephone operators are carrying Internet content to the air for what many call a sweeping change in how we gather information while on the go.
Some 10 million subscribers in Japan are using the i-Mode wireless Internet system, less than a year old, to do everything from shop to carry on instant chat conversations on their screens. In Europe, wireless Internet activity has caught on with corporate executives. And in America, Sprint has made a hard push to attract consumers to connect to the Internet through their cell phones, said Bryan Prohm, a senior analyst with Dataquest, a market research company.
Almost 10 percent of the 90 million cellular telephones in use in the United States have Internet capability, but how many users are actually connected and using it is up in the air, Prohm said.
For many people, paying extra to make their cellular telephones connect to the Internet is a method of gathering information in search of a purpose. Just why you need wireless Internet service hasn't been made clear, said Brett Warthen, CEO of Infinite Technologies Inc., an Owings Mills company that provides wireless e-mail access and intranet access to corporations and mobile device companies.
"There really is a global phenomenon building with a lot of activity occurring all over the world. Here in the U.S., though, the biggest thing mobile operators have not done a good job of saying is why this is useful to [consumers]," Warthen said. "We're still trying to figure out what to do with it."
Another part of the problem is this isn't your PC's Internet.
On the same World Wide Web that you surf at home is another set of Web pages built with tiny, powerful packets of information destined for the small three- to five-line backlit displays that Web phones sport. The bandwidth is narrow. And ordinary Web graphics and sound files aren't a part of the mix.
Wireless Internet isn't about surfing or reading dissertations on the Web. Wireless users get brief, succinct content. According to Pinpoint.Com, a behind-the-scenes builder of wireless Web page search engines, about 2.4 million pages for wireless users exist, of which it has indexed 1.5 million.
A mix of start-ups and established companies offer content including stock trading, sports scores, fantasy sports league play and auction listings, said Jud Bowman, president and co-founder of Pinpoint, which is based in Durham, N.C.
A quick look at the Samsung SCH-8500 offered by Sprint PCS shows a limited but useful group of tasks that people on the go can do with a cellular Internet connection. The telephone, which began selling in April, retails for about $199; Sprint PCS offers several plans to pay for airtime, whether for the Internet or voice calls.
The 4.5-ounce Samsung has programmed keys that allow users to punch in numbers, letters and symbols. To hit the Web, however, you need to click the Menu button twice, then the OK button to bring up the mini-browser window, which is about 1 inch high and 1 1/2 inches across. The Menu, OK and Clear buttons are tools of navigation.
The tiny Web browser uses nine item listings to help readers navigate from one Web location to the next. Available in the first browser menu are Yahoo!, America Online, Amazon.Com and several other sites.
Yahoo! users who want to check their e-mail use the menu to reach a sign-in page. About 60 seconds after the first button is pushed, you can read your e-mail.
Writing e-mail is a tougher task. The small keypad allows for putting in letters through "alpha" mode. Some keys carry multiple letters. For example, to get the letter "r," you must punch in the "7" key three times.
A program called T9, however, provides faster word manipulation. Punch in the letters for "hello," and despite starting by typing out "g" and "d" on the display, it figures out the word you intend to spell. It works well for short messages with common words but doesn't compare with writing e-mails from a PC.
Outside of e-mail, the Sprint PCS service offers synopses of movies and the nearest theater, reviews of restaurants in your neighorhood and latest baseball scores.
Ebay.com, the Weather Channel and E.Compare.com, which allows shoppers to comparison shop, can be accessed through Sprint PCS.
If you have a laptop and get tired of the tiny screen, you can use the telephone as a 14.4-kbps modem to connect with the Internet. You will need to buy a special cable and have an airtime package as well.
The big downside to wireless Internet is that Sprint and AT&T; and other device operators control the start page for the minibrowser.
With Sprint PCS, you can add your favorite Web sites to a bookmark listing, but the place where the minibrowser starts is standard for the service.
"We call this the walled garden," Prohm said. "Operators have gone out of the way to deliberately control what users can use and access."
The big upside, though, is that the Internet on a cellular is as promising as any technology simply because it is coupled with a device with voice capabilities. "Voice is the killer application," Prohm says. "After all, these tools are about communication -- everything else is secondary."
For now, handheld devices appear to be most useful to business travelers who want to check e-mail and get information from a corporate database.
Analysts, however, expect consumers to catch on as the technology evolves and the content continues to increase. For example, Sprint PCS adds two to three sites a week, according to Sprint PCS spokesman Larry McDonnell.
Sometime in the fall, AOL subscribers will have instant chat.
Meanwhile, early adopters like Grieves have found the freedom to move around while using the Internet through a wireless device indispensible.
"No one wants to be tied down to a particular device," he said. "People don't even want to go to their computer for everything."