Beware the Wireless Fantasy

For those of you who miss the days of unbridled dot-com fantasies, I direct your attention to the infant wireless commerce industry, where hype has found a comfortable new home.

For those of you who miss the days of unbridled dot-com fantasies, I direct your attention to the infant wireless commerce industry, where hype has found a comfortable new home.

Mondays through Fridays, my inbox is relentlessly bombarded with press releases announcing some new scheme or product that promises to take wireless communications beyond the cell phone and into e-commerce. Any day now, Im told, Ill be able to use my next-generation wireless device as a digital wallet, an Internet appliance for e-mail and Web browsing, a mobile entertainment receiver for audio and video streams, a secure electronic passkey, a combination bar code scanner and retail terminal, a personal organizer, a global positioning satellite receiver, a calculator, a TV remote control and a garage door opener. Whats more, unlike my kids, Im assured, this thing is going to accept voice commands. Look Ma! No buttons!

This digital Swiss Army knife of tomorrow — I hereby assert worldwide rights to the DSAK acronym — should send visions of sugarplums dancing in the head of an avowed technophile like yours truly. Instead, it depresses me. As much as Id love to have all that power in my pocket, Ive eaten enough gee-whiz bonbons off the high-tech counter over the years to know that what Ill really find in my pocket is a micro-bundle of macro-frustration — and an increasingly annoying one at that.

Or let me put this another way: Before we start stuffing all these features into a single wireless device, could we just make cell phones work? Im really impressed that a Japanese consumer can walk up to a Coke machine, press a button on an NTT DoCoMo cell phone and get a soft drink charged to some virtual cache of yen deep in the bowels of a Tokyo bank. But right now, Im not all that thirsty. I just want to place a call on my AT&T Wireless phone at a conference in Las Vegas or San Jose without getting a network busy signal. I want to get a signal in my conference room in Manhattan like the Verizon Wireless customer next to me can. I want to be able to drive past New Yorks John F. Kennedy International or Newark International airports without losing my connection.

I pick on AT&T because it happens to be my own provider, and thus its defects are the ones I know best. But I could just as easily list the myriad problems with my daughters Verizon service, and I hear similar complaints about other providers all the time. The bottom line is that wireless services are as unreliable as they are handy.

Say Im the I-manager whos responsible for choosing interactive technologies for my companys work force. Since Im not naive about such things, I understand that building a wireless network is complicated and expensive. But the bottom line is that, almost two decades after the cell phone was introduced, wireless is still not a dependable technology. So, while Id love to keep my work force on a wireless leash, dont send salespeople in here talking Bluetooth or Symbian or WAP or dozens of other platforms and protocols and standards that arent really standards. Just let my workers make a plain, old-fashioned voice call to the office from wherever they happen to be. Thats the only sales tool that will impress me.

And one more thing: Spare me the mobile ad-delivery fantasy. I dont want to be continually assaulted with advertisements on my phone — or by offers to "opt in" to ads either. Yet, I am told thats exactly what I do want. The scariest press release to drop into my inbox last week came from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It quoted Catherine McConville, sales director at SkyGo, a wireless advertising company based in Redwood City, Calif., saying that her companys research proved that "consumers will be happy to receive [wireless] ads, viewing them as informative rather than intrusive."

It would be interesting to know how the words "happy" and "informative" are defined on whatever planet Ms. McConville hails from.