You Don't Have to Be A Geek to Go On-Line

For anyone who has ever said computers are too complicated, the world's telephone manufacturers have a deal for you.

It's a phone with a screen and small keyboard. It makes regular phone calls, but it also allows people to send electronic mail and browse the Internet with push-button ease. "If you can dial a phone, you can access the Internet through this device," says Robert Diamond, chairman of Cidco Inc., a manufacturer of one of the new-generation devices.

These devices are called "information appliances." And they may prove to be just the thing to bring onto the Internet, even those people who are convinced that the computer was designed to make them look bad. So the good news is: You won't have to be a geek to gawk on-line.

Unfortunately, no one knows what a successful information appliance looks like. Manufacturers are throwing all sorts of hybrid gizmos into the marketplace: information appliances based on TVs, personal computers (PCs), and cellular telephones. Something is going to persuade Uncle Harry to look up sports scores on the Internet, probably a TV-based device he can work with the remote. And even old-fashioned grandmas may venture on-line to read electronic mail if all they have to do is punch two buttons.

There are good reasons why the telephone may be the way many non-PC seniors splash their way into the info-surf. Compared with the PC, it's far easier to use, and exchanging electronic mail is a logical extension of making a phone call. That is why at least five manufacturers - Uniden, Matsushita, Samsung, Cidco, and Navitel - are rushing to get out a phone-based information appliance in the next several months.

One of the first companies out of the gate is Cidco. It expects to begin selling its device in the second half of the year. The phone includes a built-in screen capable of displaying the pictures and text of the Internet's graphical World Wide Web. The phone also has special software that automatically converts phone numbers on the Web into Internet-like links. So, if consumers click their mouse on one of those links, the phone automatically logs off the Internet and dials the highlighted number.

This capability fits nicely with the Internet, because companies are already beginning to make available white pages and yellow pages that cover the entire United States. Don't remember your college roommate's long-distance phone number? Don't pay 95 cents for directory assistance, look it up on the Internet for no charge. (Of course, you'll likely pay some monthly fee for access to the global network.)

Cidco, which is licensing its phone technology from InfoGear Technology Corp., expects its iPhone will sell for less than $500. Long-distance carrier Sprint announced last week that it would begin a trial of the technology soon. Meanwhile, Uniden is offering a less elaborate system for $299, which should start shipping in March. Diba Inc. is teaming its telephone software with chips from Mitsubishi Electronics America in order to license the technology to other companies, such as Matsushita and Samsung, which will make the actual phones.

Obviously, the smart phone won't take the place of an Internet-capable computer. Instead, it's aimed at consumers who want to use the Internet for one or two functions exclusively. These first-generation information appliances will be the Trojan horses that carry the idea of Internet access to homes that would never consider getting a PC.

By the second half of next year, new Internet devices could arrive on the scene to take the idea even further, forecasts Joe Gillach, Diba's chief operating officer. Could they be PC-like? No way, he says. "1996 was the year the PC died as a mass consumer item."

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