Like a growing number of people, Palo Alto, Calif.-based marketing consultant Bill Bucy has gone totally wireless. His Nokia 6162 cell phone comes with him to the corporate office, and is the main means of contacting him on the road. "Responsiveness is important to my key constituencies: Clients and the news media," he says. "With the wireless phone, I regularly get high marks from my clients for always being available." While not everyone has completely cut the landline as Bucy has, a Gartner Group survey shows that 40 percent of all adults in the United States now use wireless telephones. In most major cities, that figure jumps to nearly 60 percent. But the ubiquity of wireless phones doesn't mean buying one is simple.
Wireless phones are sold in specialty stores, electronics stores, office-supply outlets, and through your local telephone company. But the customer who wants to match his or her business needs with the right phone runs into confusing lists of features, spotty coverage maps, and conflicts between communications standards. There's digital and analog, WAP and 3G, CDMA and GSM; even incompatible lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries and conflicting safety information.
Arming yourself with a little knowledge can clear up much of the confusion and direct you to the most appropriate phone and the best deal. As for safety concerns, you may have read about studies that link excessive wireless phone usage to brain cancer, as well as to increased car accidents due to drivers diverting their attention to their phones. The good news is that a recent National Cancer Institute report found that there was no higher risk of brain tumors among cell phone users. If you're still concerned, take the American Cancer Society's advice and use earplugs, speakerphones, or other hands-free devices.
As for features, start by asking yourself what your business really needs. If your employees travel frequently, you'll probably want to equip them with dual- or tri-mode phones that can work on many types of wireless networks and have excellent battery life. Users who have numerous phone contacts will want models with larger phone books for storing frequently called numbers. If your organization needs PDAs, but your employees don't want two devices taking up room in their briefcases, you'll want phones that can store detailed contact information and calendar entries. And if you want to take advantage of up-to-the-minute stock reports or online travel planning, WAP-enabled phones that can help you access Internet information are the only way to go.
For most users, sticking to basics is the best call. What you want is a phone that works in frequently traveled areas and boasts clear sound quality, long battery life, easy-to-use keypads, compact size, and a reliable service provider. This guide will cover the main issues that surround wireless phones, and should help you fine-tune your purchase to best suit your business needs.
Ericsson R380 World
Some products have so much obvious potential that some equally obvious shortcomings hardly matter. That's the case with the R380 ($599), a combination wireless phone, PDA, and WAP browser. In many respects, the R380 seems to be the wireless phone of the future.
It's a competent global phone for the employee on the move, using GSM frequencies deployed in the United States, Europe, and Asia. It's a decent PDA, with the ability to record contact names and calendar data (importable from or exportable to a PC). Finally, it's a WAP phone, capable of browsing news and stock quotes, and sending or receiving e-mail.
In practice, the phone works well, using a familiar stylus to enter and call up data. It's also admirably compact, only slightly larger than the Nokia 7190 despite its much larger display panel. But it has drawbacks, foremost among them the limitations of WAP-limited data availability and slow connection speeds. In the U.S., the R380 is also apt to hit large areas without phone service. Despite these drawbacks, it's still difficult to look at it and not say, "Wow!" If you are out of your office and on the road, this is a cutting-edge option.
Motorola V Series 60c
In the '80s, moviegoers watched early-adopter Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street marching around New York with a new Motorola wireless phone the size of a loaf of bread. If a sequel to Wall Street were released today, Michael Douglas would have the new V60c ($400). Less than half the size of a computer mouse, the super-compact V60c carries calls on two CDMA frequencies, plus analog. So within the U.S., you'll have access almost anywhere.
The V60c has two display screens --a small exterior one for caller ID and text messages, and a larger one inside for access to the 400-number directory, the main menu, and other services. This silver phone is immensely likeable, and has the ability to dial numbers on voice command. And despite its tiny dimensions, the V60c feels full-size --its design conforms nicely to your head, with the microphone next to your mouth for good voice-pickup. Incoming calls sound great, too. The one drawback: The minuscule battery limits talk time to about half of some less-compact phones; up to 2.5 hours of talk time in digital mode, 150 hours of standby. Battery life notwithstanding, the V60c is a sleek choice for businesspeople who prioritize coverage.
Nokia crowds the wireless field with its vast array of well-designed, well-priced telephones. Its new WAP entry is the Nokia 7190 ($250). It's a good offering in a market fraught with difficulties. On the upside, the 7190 has Nokia's easy-to-use interface, with intuitive menu choices and a menu dial to scroll through selections. Phone users can sync their contacts and schedules with their PC or laptop via infrared, just like a PDA.
Sound quality is excellent over the GSM calling frequency, though the phone has no analog backup. Battery life is outstanding -- up to eight hours of talk time and two weeks' standby with the "ultra-extended life" Li-Ion battery (an additional $50). The downside is WAP itself -- slow, expensive, and limited in scope and availability.
We also could have done without the 7190's large display, originally meant for viewing WAP data. As big as it is, it's still only half the size of a business card, and can't show much information. It also makes the 7190 larger than it needs to be. Still, if you need to go long periods without using a charger and your usage is confined to metro areas, this phone makes sense.
Coming up with the right list of features for your business is easier if you speak the language. Here are some terms you're apt to hear:
3G: For "third generation," an in-development digital standard that may unite the many standards currently available. Benefits include better data transmission, larger calling areas, and WAP integration. The digital convergence of telephones, PCs, and other electronic devices may also result, by allowing them to share data via this unified format.
ANALOG: The dominant wireless service in the United States, which employs cellular radio signals to transmit your voice using the 800MHz frequency range. You can get inexpensive analog service nearly anywhere in the U.S., but the signal, and therefore the voice quality, isn't always strong.
DIGITAL: Digital service converts a voice into a series of 1's and 0's, sends it over the airwaves at 800MHz or 1,900MHz, and reassembles it at its destination. Digital signals take up less frequency space than analog signals, meaning more voices and data can be
carried on less power, and the sound quality is better.
MODES: Phones that have both analog and digital capabilities are dual-mode. Phones capable of using the analog standard, a digital standard, and the PCS standard are known as tri-mode.
PCS: Personal Cellular System, a specific version of CDMA digital service. Built, owned, and operated by Sprint PCS, it's available mainly in large metro areas. PCS offers voice commands, wireless Web, and e-mail to subscribers.
STANDARDS: In the U.S., there are three incompatible digital standards -- CDMA, TDMA (each broadcasting at either 800MHz or 1,900MHz), and GSM (1,900MHz only); and one analog standard, AMPS. If you'll be using your telephone primarily near big cities, then a digital-only GSM phone will be fine, as coverage for them is good in metropolitan areas. If you travel all across the U.S., you'll want a digital phone (CDMA or TDMA) with additional analog capability.
WAP: Wireless Application Protocol, a system for routing Internet-based information to wireless telephones. For travelers who need e-mail, news, or stock quotes, a WAP-enabled phone may prove useful.
HOW WILL YOU MANAGE?
Many businesses that supply their employees with cell phones, PDAs, and other wireless devices find themselves hard pressed to keep track of all the equipment and services plans they use. One solution is wireless device management, a new service that can track all of your company's wireless assets. Aurora, Colo.-based Reason Inc. (877-923-9273, www.reasoninc.com) has a Web-based product that tracks your devices, evaluates service plans, and provides rate plan analysis to make sure you're getting the best deal. Atlanta-based XcelleNet (800-322-3366, www.xcellenet.com) provides device management along with IT, upgrade, and backup services for all of your wireless products. -- Eileen Bien Calabro
For some wireless users, the telephone itself is just the starting point. Some may wish to work at their keyboards while they talk. A full client schedule might tempt some to have a phone handy while driving to appointments. Accessories will make these activities possible and make your phone more versatile.
SPARE BATTERIES: Get at least one spare battery from the phone manufacturer -- preferably a vibrating one, which can alert you to a call without that annoying ring. The best batteries use Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) to hold the charge. Motorola's SNN5717 ($65; 800-331-6456, www.motorola.com) is an inexpensive example that works with a number of popular Motorola phones. Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries have about 25 to 30 percent less battery life, but cost less. The Nokia BMS-2V ($45; 888-256-2098, www.nokiausa.com) combines the vibrating option with good talk time for your Nokia phone.
CHARGERS: Frequent travelers will want a rapid charger, which plugs into wall sockets and can charge a battery in two hours instead of overnight. Basic models cost around $30. Nokia makes a handy charger/speakerphone combo ($130; 888-NOKIA-2U, www.nokiausa.com) that lets you recharge your cell phone and use it at the same time. And Vox2 ($200, 866-VOX2-INC, www.vox2.com) offers a desktop charger that plugs into your office's wired lines, letting you take wireless calls while your cell phone charges. Car chargers revive the battery while powering the phone for a conversation, and run about $30.
CAR KIT: Kits with a phone holder, charger, and speakerphone cost around $150 to $200, plus the cost of professional installation. Wireless fans on a budget can opt for simpler units that plug into a cigarette lighter. The HF-7600 from Ericsson ($200; 800-374-2776, www.ericsson.com) requires professional installation, but is a popular full-featured option for Ericsson phones.
HEADSET: Got your hands full without a phone? A hands-free kit with belt clip, cord, and headset will enable you to keep your phone on your belt while you speak and listen through a lightweight microphone and earpiece. Plantronics (800-544-4660, www.plantronics.com) has a wide array of hands-free kits for nearly all makes and models. Prices start at around $30.