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Wireless phone and Internet service--closer than you think

By James Hanback Jr.

JULY 5, 1999:  Every guy secretly wants to be James Bond, even if just a little bit. Some envy the secret agent's wit and his charm, while others relate to his undeniable way with the ladies. Then there are all the folks--like me--who admire Bond's swanky cars and gadgets.

As a kid, I always wanted a laser-endowed wristwatch with a television and homing-device capabilities. And even though I never was at all interested in smoking, I still thought it would have been cool to have a pack of cigarettes that could double as plastic explosives. Sure, all these toys were totally far-fetched, not to mention completely impractical, but who cared? They hinted at the exciting possibilities of technology.

Nowadays, technology generates all kinds of cool gadgets--and not only that, they're tools with practical applications. The products of high tech are no longer novelties; they're commonplace facts of modern existence. We use them to write letters, to keep up with appointments, and to contact friends, relatives, and co-workers.

Want to read the news and download a game at the same time? We have the bandwidth and technology to do it now. Want to put your computer in your pocket and carry it around? We have palmtops.

Leaving aside the fact that all of this was unimaginable just a few years ago, imagine being able to take advantage of all that technology in an even more Bond-like fashion. Imagine being able to browse the Web, send e-mail, check your next appointment, and talk to your boss all through a wireless digital telephone. Pay attention, 007, because that reality is almost here. At least that's what the folks at Nextel Communications say.

Nextel is a wireless communications company with a local branch office. Its latest product, the i1000plus Internet-ready phone, was announced in June.

"The i1000plus includes a Web browser and upgraded voice features," Nextel officials said in a statement about the product launch. This is the first step in the introduction of the company's wireless Internet service, which was announced separately in May and will be rolled out later this year. Nextel received a $600 million investment in the wireless Internet program from software giant Microsoft. The Microsoft MSN Internet portal will provide Nextel subscribers with connectivity "anytime, anywhere" on the Nextel National Network.

Admittedly, the combination of Internet and telephone services in one small, mobile unit sounds like the answer to a prayer. While the i1000plus can't do everything your personal computer can do, the implementation of a Web browser could allow people to perform tasks they're now only able to do on their desktop PCs or their laptops: check Web-based e-mail services, for instance, or even run Web-based word processing or spreadsheet applications on a corporate intranet.

As with any new convenience, however, there are some potential downsides to the package. We've all experienced the "driver-on-the-phone" phenomenon, where we're forced to swerve into another lane or blat the horn to alert cell-phone users when the light turns green. It's frightening to see how quickly people forget their basic driving skills when they become engrossed in their telephone conversations.

Now just imagine those drivers with the additional distraction of a Web browser or e-mail. "Hmmmm," the driver up ahead will think, "I'll bet I've got just enough time at this red light to check my mutual funds' performance...."

This isn't to say that the technology will be to blame. Careless mistakes are made by careless people, and not by the technology. I admit that I'll probably end up owning just such a tightly integrated communication device myself someday. But I hope and expect that, no matter how diverting a modern convenience might be, I'll remember to pay attention to what's going on around me--especially in traffic.

After all, being James Bond might be fun, but I sure wouldn't want to pay for his insurance policy.

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