Network: Hardware: Untie the knot with your PC - get an iPhone

Soon you will no longer need an expensive personal computer or even an inexpensive set-top box to access the World Wide Web. Sandra Vogel test drives the iPhone, which seems certain to change the meaning of dial-up Internet service.
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If the Internet is going to achieve the success it deserves it needs to be liberated from its ideological and physical attachment to computers. Only in this way can the Net shake its nerdy image and, more important, be relocated from the office or kids' bedroom into the living room.

No one in the industry disagrees. The difficulty is finding a way to achieve the separation. Boxes that integrate the Internet with your television are the best effort so far, but they haven't exactly lit consumers' fire. The iPhone could.

The iPhone is a telephone augmented by e-mail and Web browsing capability. Relatively large because it sports a screen, an iPhone can still sit almost anywhere you would normally put a telephone. The design is minimalist. There are no floppy drive bays, no connectors for printers, monitors or mice. The keyboard, needed for typing e-mails and URLs, sits in a spring- loaded compartment under the front of the machine. When not in use, it can be neatly tucked away.

Anyone who has seen a French Minitel will be instantly reminded of it by the iPhone. The developer, InfoGear, does not seem to mind the connection. Elias Moubayed, director of business development, explains: "Minitel is a fantastic model. It has grown from being a simple telephone directory to an information centre with tens of thousands of providers because it is fast, efficient, and very easy to use. So is iPhone."

The beta unit I tested was certainly impressive on all those criteria. Setting up my ISP details took seconds. Adding favourite phone numbers and e-mail addresses to the directory was a simple typing job, and because of the on-board memory I was able to store a textual note about each contact. I had visions of noting things like: "Remember to ask Aunt Jane about her lumbago on next phone call". Big clear icons on the touch-sensitive screen made choosing both Internet- and phone-related options a breeze. Two touches to autodial a phone number, another two to start an e-mail, three to find a favourite Web site.

However, an excellent user interface is not on its own enough to make the iPhone a success. InfoGear needs to encourage the potentially huge market of non-technical users to think of the World Wide Web as a viable information resource. To achieve that, it needs to make finding information much easier than it is today. "Even something relatively straightforward like finding out what movies are on locally can be difficult for non-technical users," Mr Moubayed says. "If information providers think they are going to get average people to perform six or seven mouse clicks to get to hard information, they are dreaming. It is simply too tedious and confusing."

InfoGear's solution is to develop software that allows providers to make specific material only a single screen-touch away. This could be nationally or locally relevant information, and there is no reason why commercial providers and others like local authorities should not sit side by side.

iPhone goes on sale in the US in January. It will cost $499. InfoGear is sounding out potential and distribution partners for the UK. They shouldn't have much trouble finding either, and expect the UK iPhone to appear by the middle of next year, retailing for around pounds 350.

More information on the iPhone is available on the InfoGear Web site (http://www.infogear.com).

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