COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Experimenting with worldwide Wi-Fi phoning

As I prepared for a trip to Tokyo and Shanghai this past week, I thought it would be a good opportunity to try out one of the latest Wi-Fi-enabled PocketPCs (PPC), equipped with the newly released Skype client for these devices.

While GSM-equipped cell phones work nearly everywhere in the world, Japan is one of the few exceptions. Japan uses a proprietary cellular network, and rental cell phones are not readily available. I figured I could make phone calls using the PocketPC as long as I could find a Wi-Fi connection.

Skype for Pocket PC Version 1.0 is a pocket version of the Skype PC version, which allows users to make free phone calls to other Skype users or purchase minutes to call any phone number. It's designed to work on any PDA running Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC software with a 400 MHz XScale processor and equipped with Wi-Fi.

Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) loaned me their HP iPAQ hx4700 Pocket PC (about $649), a slim PDA with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It uses the latest Windows Mobile 2003 software (ignore Microsoft's weird naming; the 2003 version is their 2005 product) -- Premium Edition PPC V3.0 from Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT).

HP's 4700 is one of the best pocket PCs I've used. It has a gorgeous 5-inch diagonal, full-color VGA screen that's readable both indoors and out. While it has a large footprint, the device is thin and pocketable. It has a durable, dark gray metal housing with a hinged translucent cover.

I downloaded the Skype PPC software onto my PC and then synced to the HP. The PPC automatically detected my home Wi-Fi network and I connected to it by entering my WEP number on the PPC. I then went to the Skype site and signed in.

Using Skypeout, Skype's prepaid service that allows calling to phone numbers for about 2 cents a minute, I called my wife in the next room. In a few seconds we were connected and talking. She said there was a little echo, which turned out to be due to not using a plug-in microphone. I felt like Alexander Bell making his first call.

I then added my Skype contacts, which displayed who was online (like instant messaging), and called one in Hong Kong using Skype's free computer-to-computer service. Again, it worked like a charm. This is cool: A PocketPC being used like a phone to call anywhere in the world, at little or no charge.

Once in Japan, however, finding an accessible Wi-Fi network was a challenge. There were plenty around, but none that I found were open to public access.

The HP 4700 turned out to be a great Wi-Fi finder. It detected and displayed dozens of networks as I wandered around the busy Shinjuku area. I tried a couple of Starbucks, but they were not offering Wi-Fi. Had I been able to find a public Wi-Fi connection, I expect the 4700 would have worked well.

Back at my hotel, I plugged the cleverly named "3COM 3CRTRV10075 Wireless Travel Router" ($70) into the high-speed Ethernet connection in the room, which provided a wireless connection. I was then able to use the 4700 to make calls, a minor achievement, considering I could have used the computer a few feet away.

Once connected to Wi-Fi, making a call requires typing in the country code and phone number and hitting return. I was connected in five to 10 seconds most of the time. But the real value of using a PPC with Skype is dependent on being able to access a free Wi-Fi connection quickly and automatically.

While the Windows PPC operating system works better than a PC in finding and connecting to a wireless network, it's still cumbersome and can't distinguish between those networks that have free access and those requiring registration. It indicated it found and was connected to networks that were no longer in the vicinity. Microsoft needs to do more to make this seamless and to make it work as easily as a cell phone.

I came to appreciate how easy it is to access the dial tone on a cell phone or wired line with the simple push of one button, something we take for granted. Today, using Skype on a PPC is best suited for avoiding expensive charges while traveling, and where cell phone access is restricted or costly. It's also best used where there is wide area Wi-Fi access.

As an aside, Skype's performance was not as good as in my previous experiences. While it worked well in Tokyo, connections from Shanghai produced a lot of and at times were unusable, likely a function of the quality of the broadband service.

It won't be too long, however, before detecting a wireless network and calling becomes much simpler, and public access Wi-Fi networks will be more available worldwide. Once that happens, the PPC with Skype will rival the cell phone, and will make a call from anywhere in the world essentially free. Motorola (NYSE: MOT) recently announced new cell phones with built-in Wi-Fi and a Skype client just for this purpose.

I'm taking a flight on All Nippon Airways that has a Wi-Fi service available. I'm anxious to try it and see if I can call home using Skype from 35,000 feet. I'll let you know the results in my next column.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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