Personal Finance: Wireless wonders

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IT WAS a big week for the wireless internet, a science fiction concept most of us had never even heard of seven days ago. The wireless internet will deliver online services to you wherever you are, via a modified mobile phone. It's a natural extension of the cable-based internet and it is on its way with a series of large deals announced early in the week. Deal-making started last year when Nokia of Finland, Ericsson of Sweden, Motorola of the US and Psion of the UK formed a joint venture called Symbian.

The big - $1bn (pounds 61m) - deal of last week was between Motorola and Cisco, the leading US computer-networking company, which provides much of the access the internet. They aim to deliver a wireless internet within five years.

Motorola also announced a deal with Nextel Communications, Netscape and Unwired Planet to supply specially designed phones, using the Nextel network and Netscape browser to access the information. And last week in the UK, Microsoft and BT announced a global link-up to bring information to people on the move, leveraging the mighty power of Microsoft's Windows by using a modified version in the mobile handsets.

What difference will it make to anything? You'll just get the same stuff as you get now, except it will be over a mobile network. Remember portable TVs and what happened to them?

At this point we'd better declare our interest. The Motley Fool owes its existence and success to the internet. No internet, no Fool, or at least a very different one. We have seen the astonishing effect this medium has had on communication between people over the last five years. The wireless internet may be just as revolutionary.

Consider for a moment the publishing industry. It costs a lot of money - and uses up a lot of trees - to deliver hard copies of newspapers and magazines to all of us. And they're all out of date when they arrive. But we all like a crisply folded newspaper in the morning, and there will probably always be paper-based products of some sort.

Imagine, however, if you had a small, hand-held device that was light, cheap, pleasant to use and had a screen with near-perfect resolution on which to read the latest news or features you're interested in, wherever you were and from your favourite sources (you'll customise it yourself). You probably won't sit on the train just reading a newspaper on the screen instead of on paper, as transplanting large chunks of text to the small screen doesn't work. Your reading pattern will be different, but it will possibly be more fulfilling, and certainly more flexible than it is now.

By freeing up access, a wireless internet will radically change the things we want to do with the internet and the structure of many aspects of our lives.

What about price? Everything will get a lot cheaper - handsets, telecom services, internet access charges. That's not a revolutionary prediction. The hunger for this kind of service is so great that rationing access via high pricing will not stand up in today's highly competitive world. Last week a US company started giving out free computers for internet access, the catch being that you have to accept adverts on your screen - even when you're offline. This may be a gimmick, but it's a sign of the way things are going.

So who will win the wireless internet game? It's tempting to answer Microsoft. But with the mighty Cisco entering the fray, ranged against the Symbian venture as well as Microsoft and BT, there is all to play for.

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