Web to go

Fred Lapp says a Web phone in his hand means money in his pocket. By logging onto the Web through his cell phone, the Sarasota, Fla., owner-operator leased to Landstar Inway found a good load 40 miles away two minutes after it was posted.

The night before, Lapp lost a lucrative jet-engine load to a driver who likewise turned on his Web phone while waiting to unload. Lapp says he salutes that driver, who rather than idling and losing money was working and making money. Cell phones with Web capability have been nicknamed “smart phones,” but Lapp says the truckers who use them are the smart ones.

“Drivers have to look now at total communications,” Lapp says. “He who jumps on the load first wins. The Web phone lets you do it when you’re in the truck. Drivers have got to have them. It makes things so much easier.”

Web phones, which include a small monochrome screen, enable you to send and receive e-mail and other text messages, enter data such as expense and mileage, and access the Web in a limited way. In only a year or two, their costs have dropped from more than $500 to less than $100 for some models, and new models have succeeded one another with bewildering speed. Soon it’ll be hard to buy a cell phone without Web features and hard to find a savvy trucker not using them to find loads, post messages and do everything else truckers do on the Web.

“The phones are getting smarter,” says Bill Dyer, director of new ventures for Alcatel’s Network Applications Division. “And as a result, things that have been available only through very expensive GPS systems will now be available to smaller companies, including owner-operators.”

If the popularity of cell phones among truckers is any indication, Web phones may one day be as common in the industry as mudflaps. According to the 2000 Overdrive Reader Profile, 82 percent of owner-operators use cell phones, the most popular carriers being AT&T at 17 percent, Verizon at 14 percent, and Cingular at 8 percent. These and other carriers now offer Web phone service, and 80 percent of all new portable phones on the market this year will have Web capability, says Joe Hill, data sales and engineering manager for Verizon Wireless.

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Selecting the right Web phone isn’t easy. There are many models, each with different capabilities and operating systems. Furthermore, because there are several incompatible wireless technologies, each Web phone works only with certain carriers. As if that weren’t confusing enough, not all carriers provide nationwide Web coverage, and those that do have gaps in their service areas. For all these reasons, Consumer Reports concludes wireless Internet access is “not worth paying extra to get” right now. But if you do your homework and buy wisely, some drivers say, a Web phone can be a powerful business tool today.

“I just got one last week, and I love it,” says Scott Rismoen, a Yakima, Wash., owner-operator leased to Atlas Van Lines. “I have it set up to check fuel prices at the Flying J’s, so that in itself should save me money.” Rismoen’s costs are typical. His Ericsson phone cost $60 with a $50 rebate; his AT&T service plan gives him unlimited Internet for $15 a month added to the base rate. Less typically, Atlas Van Lines pays his cellular bill, as some carriers do for their drivers.

Phones and PCs view the Web differently. Other than a couple of top-of-the-line new models, such as the Kyocera QCP-6035, which retails for $500, most Web phones are able to access only sites specifically designed for wireless viewing. The obvious difference for the user is that wireless websites are all text, no graphics. “Yes, you can have the Internet,” Rismoen says, “but it’s a scaled-down version.”

A number of mass-audience websites have wireless-only versions, including Yahoo!, MSN, Ticketmaster, The Weather Channel, The New York Times, Mr. Showbiz, Amazon and ABC. Certain trucker-oriented websites, such as Landstar’s load board, are getting into the act, too.

“We went out to see whether other load-posting companies were offering wireless Web and found they really hadn’t, so we decided it would be a good way to distinguish ourselves and offer a unique service,” says Bill McCarty, owner of Freight4us.com, who expects the wireless version to be running by late summer. “With the new phones coming out, the demand is only going to grow.”

Despite the relative scarcity of wireless-friendly websites, Lapp says he’s already able to do quite a lot with his Web phone. “I can find freight. I can find weather. I can find stocks. I can pull down your basic news. I do some e-mail on it, and if I wanted to call up a map, I could.” Lapp prefers reading maps on his laptop because it has a larger screen.

When you first try to surf via Web phone, the tiny screen and the telephone keypad are the biggest surprises. Screens on the earliest models showed only a single line of scrolling text, like a hand-held version of the Times Square marquee. Today the Motorola StarTAC 7868, for example, displays four lines of text, the Audiovox CDM-9100 seven lines. “You’re seeing more and more lines of available text,” Hill says, but adds that screen size is ultimately limited by the size of the human hand, which won’t change anytime soon.

More vexing is typing messages on a telephone keypad that has little in common with a computer keyboard. The numeral 2 button, for example, serves for entering A, B or C. That means you have to punch once for A, twice for B and three times for C. If you hesitate, the phone records your last choice. If it’s wrong, you punch Clear and retype the letter. Try typing even the simplest message that way, on a Barbie-scale keypad, and you’ll see why online chatters abbreviate everything.

In addition to these “limited input capabilities,” as Dyer tactfully calls them, Web phones have other drawbacks. Navigating their features can be confusing, Lapp says. You can find yourself mired deep in an application and unsure how to get out “without removing the back of the phone and taking out the battery,” Lapp says.

The complex wireless landscape of rival carriers and coverage zones can be confusing and frustrating, too. Rismoen, though he likes his Web phone, concedes that coverage is spotty. David Glass, an Ely, Nev., owner-operator, tried a Web phone for a year on an AT&T contract but got fed up because he kept driving out of the service area. “The service provider told me all of those extra functions worked only if I was in my home area,” Glass says. “I now have a laptop and find it much more useful.”

Dyer concedes that gaps in service “continue to be a problem, though many carriers are trying to make it easier,” through coast-to-coast service plans and billions of dollars in new service towers and instrumentation.

Carriers’ service areas – footprints – are getting bigger, says Lapp, who has used his Web phone even “in the middle of the desert.” Besides, he adds, “If you don’t like the footprints, wait six months and see if the footprints have increased. What wasn’t worth it to you two years ago might very well be worth it to you today.”

Glass says he remains uninterested. “If the technology ever really arrives for wireless Web surfing, I think I will still prefer my laptop over the limitations of a cell phone.”

Rismoen admits that he’s “still getting the bugs worked out” of his new Web phone, but he’s sold on the technology. “It doesn’t replace your laptop, but it sure helps.”

How to buy a Web phone

Pick a service plan first. If you’re a short-haul trucker in a single metropolitan area, you have a lot of options, but long-haul truckers need to deal with the big carriers, says Alcatel’s Bill Dyer. Those tend to be the ones that advertise nationwide, such as AT&T, Cingular and Sprint.

“You need to consider when and where you’ll be using this,” says Verizon’s Joe Hill. “You need to be sure you’re buying a footprint that offers the services you need.”

Go to the cellular stores in your hometown and ask lots of questions about features and pricing, Dyer says. Don’t buy on impulse. Comparison shop for the best deals. Dyer recommends asking yourself, “Do I really need this feature? Do I really need this service?” Sure, he notes, having your spouse pinpoint your location via GPS would be great, but maybe it’d be quicker and cheaper just for your spouse to phone and ask, “Where are you?” What’s cost-effective for a carrier isn’t necessarily cost-effective for an owner-operator. One of several websites that compare phones and service plans is www.letstalk.com.

Once you’ve selected a service plan:

  • Select a compatible phone. Service providers typically sell phones at new-subscriber discounts of $100, $200 or more off the manufacturer’s price. Not every Web phone is compatible with every service plan, which is why buying a phone online or on the road may not be a good idea.
  • Keep in mind that Web phones have built-in browsers. Internet Explorer and Netscape are not available on a Web phone, so spend enough time in the store trying out phones to find an interface you can live with.
  • Don’t forget to consider your power source. “You definitely want to have an extra battery or two if you’re going to be surfing the Internet and talking on the phone,” Hill says. “You need to be sure you have enough juice or that you can jack into a cigarette lighter.”
  • Keep up with the Web-phone market. Dyer says improved service plans come along all the time, but you won’t know about them if you aren’t paying attention. Your current carrier is unlikely to upgrade you to a better deal if you don’t ask.