The web goes mobile

Share photos, catch up with the news, send e-mails, read maps... Rhodri Marsden tests the new internet tools for phones

The 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona last week was visited by 55,000 people, all keen to see which emerging mobile-phone technologies might soon come our way. Exhibitors tantalised with the possibility of videos of sports events being streamed direct to mobiles; of ticketing systems that read barcoded tickets sent direct to handsets; and of the thrill of phone-based internet dating - all driven by an inevitable increase in speeds up to the next generation of networks, known as 4G, at some point in the next decade.

But many new services are available right now. Until recently, connecting to the internet from your mobile was hampered by slow speeds and concerns about the bill, but T-Mobile and 3 are leading the way in the UK with their flat-rate "unlimited" packages for downloading data over the mobile internet. These don't yet offer the blazing broadband speeds we're used to at home, but a growing number of companies now offer neat applications that let your phone fully exploit the internet connections that most mobiles have these days.

These companies have realised that shoehorning normal web pages on to tiny screens isn't the best idea. Instead, these tools devote themselves to performing particular tasks such as looking at maps or magazines, listening to online radio stations, and sharing pictures and videos with friends and family.

Our table highlights the best services available now - they're speedy, efficient and designed to be genuinely useful. At last, there are good reasons to use the internet from your mobile.

What does it do?

ShoZu lets you upload pictures and video from your phone to websites such as Flickr and YouTube without using a laptop. You can share your snaps, back up your contacts and subscribe to ZuCasts - free video and audio clips from broadcasters.

Who would use it?

The intrepid explorer wanting to give friends and family continuous updates on the trip without having to haul a laptop up the Zambezi.

Best feature

You can shoot and upload in a couple of clicks. Some handsets let you receive comments and send replies.

Drawbacks

ZuCasts are a bit of a red herring; do we really need a one-minute, audio-only, weekly highlights package of Desperate Housewives?

How can I get started?

From your home PC, sign up at www.shozu.com. You can use the service with a large range of camera-phones - the full list is available on the ShoZu website.

Is anything similar coming our way?

There's another application, called iMate, that lets your mobile perform the jobs you normally do on a computer. It's about to be released in the next few months, and it will allow you to access the contents of your home or work PC from your mobile.

GOOGLE MAPS

What does it do?

The sister application to its desktop equivalent provides maps, satellite images and driving directions. It can't do sat-nav, but you can lose the A to Z.

Who would use it?

Anyone who can't afford sat-nav, or is sick of having road maps that pile up under the seats of their cars, getting dog-eared and covered in fragments of crisps. However, as the warning states when you launch the program: "Do not use while driving."

Best feature

Neatly designed; finds optimum routes in seconds. Currently offers traffic information in US metropolitan areas; UK users are keeping fingers crossed for this service.

Drawbacks

The speed of your phone's connection can make zooming and scrolling through the maps a bit laborious; there's a good chance your patience will snap and you'll grab that old road-map and spread it on the bonnet.

How can I get started?

Type www.google.com/gmm into your mobile phone's web browser and it will download. Works on most Java-enabled (J2ME) mobile phones, and some BlackBerries.

Is anything similar coming our way?

As GPS facilities get included within handsets, Google Maps will start to offer the ability to pinpoint your location. But for now, this extra feature works only on the Samsung Helio.

LITEFEEDS

What does it do?

This keeps track of any RSS feeds (new updates to your favourite web pages or blogs), so that you can keep up to speed on the go.

Who would use it?

The information junkie, or the news-hungry commuter on the bus or train. Blog obsessives have a two-way option; not only can they read the latest blogs, but they can upload their own.

Best feature

It allows you to see summaries of all articles, skipping ones you don't want and reading the ones you do in full. Articles can be e-mailed to friends.

Drawbacks

To subscribe to a new feed, you have to go to the Litefeeds site, log into your account, add it and then relaunch the application - all a bit long-winded.

How can I get started?

Can be downloaded free at www.litefeeds.com from your phone's web browser.

Is anything similar coming our way?

RSS (the system that brings you updates to web pages and blogs) is also the driving force behind podcasts; as mobile companies start to reassure us that we won't get punished for large downloads, these, too, will start whizzing down our data connections.

S60 INTERNET RADIO

What does it do?

It allows more than 16,000 "shoutcast" internet radio stations to be played over your mobile. There's a list of them at shoutcast.com, and the content on offer ranges from bluegrass to breakbeat to Bible readings.

Who would use it?

Music buffs sick of their own iPod playlists or the lame radio stations on their phone's FM radio. This allows you to hear the musical kicks from the eclectic record collections of the amateur DJ.

Best feature

Simple interface - just choose your station and go. Many phones have a built-in speaker (though of the "builder's knackered transistor" quality) but you can switch to headphones.

Drawbacks

Importing new stations from the Shoutcast website isn't very intuitive. If you listen all day, your mobile provider might get shirty about the volume of data, and the bills may add up.

How can I get started?

Free download from www.tiny url.com/jfa5x; only for smartphones - Nokia models, but some Samsung and Siemens. Go to www.s60.com/ life/s60phones.

There was a number of more sophisticated mobile-based radio exhibits at 3GSM, including Visual Radio and MobiTV, while the idea of mobile TV services is being floated by BT's Movio service.

Many people choose Gmail as their webmail service. This rather cute mobile client offers many features of the normal Gmail; searching, composing, forwarding and replying.

Anyone who depends on e-mail daily, and is sick of wrestling with the settings and clumsy interface of the built-in e-mail program on their phone.

Best feature

It's a masterpiece of economical design, with a clear interface and single keystrokes for searching, replying, deleting and marking spam.

Drawbacks

Hardly any. The ability to label and file your e-mails would add the icing to the cake, but it's very hard to fault.

How can I get started?

Free download from www.gmail.com/app for certain Java devices - the site will determine your model and install the correct version. See tinyurl.com/24ecy7 for FAQ.

Is anything similar coming our way?

Yahoo!'s Go service will be rolling out across Europe in March, and will offer user-friendly e-mail and instant messaging services.

MOBIZINES

What does it do?

Offers free subscriptions to mini publications from more than 60 sources, including BBC News, NME, GQ, OK!, Time Out and Cricket 365. To minimise the time spent online, and keep bills down, your updates are downloaded in one quick hit, so you can read them later.

Who would use it?

Mag addicts who haven't got any change in their pockets and could do with something to read on the train; and those who can't bear to read poorly designed websites on their phones.

Best feature

The magazines are beautifully laid out, and it's easy to navigate. Subscribing is simple, and the mags download quickly.

Drawbacks

Some are a bit short on content. The application can manage RSS feeds too, but it has to be set up via a computer, and it took some effort to get it working properly.

How can I get started?

It works on more than 75 mobiles, including Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola handsets, and can be downloaded via www.mobizines.com/start.

Is anything similar coming our way?

As data rates improve towards the Holy Grail of 4G in the next decade, there'll be a shift towards downloading radio and TV shows, too; Apple's iPhone may well be at the forefront.

FRING

What does it do?

This lets you make free calls to friends who use Skype, GTalk and MSN online phone services. You can also use it for free text-chat. Call landlines and mobiles worldwide cheaply. It cost me 1p a minute to call a friend in America on his mobile.

Who would use it?

The non-stop talker who longs for their free online phone calls when they're out and about; the cost-conscious businessman or woman who resents having to fork out huge amounts for international calls from their mobile.

Best feature

It neatly dovetails with your existing phone address book, allowing you to choose between making calls on your normal tariff, or via SkypeOut.

Drawbacks

The text-chat client is slightly cumbersome because of the limitations of the keypad, although SMS-addicted teenagers will probably find it a cinch. The time lag during voice conversations is just about bearable.

How can I get started?

Free download from www.fring.com. Available for higher-end Nokia handsets - see www.fring.com/download for full details.

Is anything similar coming our way?

VoIP feels more like a neat trick than something really usable, but faster networks will revolutionise voice communication from mobiles.

OPERA MINI

What does it do?

Sometimes you just have to check the internet. Through various clever tricks, Opera Mini renders most web pages readable on your handset, where your phone's built-in browser would probably struggle.

Who would use it?

The pub-quiz cheat furtively connecting to Wikipedia; the commuter trying to check disruption on public transport; even a bit of emergency online banking can be completed without much trouble.

Best feature

A neat interface, combined with handy search boxes for online dictionaries, eBay, Technorati and other online destinations.

Drawbacks

You're never going to be able to condense a web page down to the size of a mobile phone screen without compromises; some pages take some deciphering.

How can I get started?

Free download by visiting www.operamini.com. It works on most phones that can run Java mobile applications - that's most phones made in the last five years.

Is anything similar coming our way?

Apple's new Safari-style browser (for S60 phones) is supposed to come bundled with some new models within the next six weeks.

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