Here is a vision of the near future, as ordained by some of the world's leading technology and telecommunications companies:
Busy executives dash off their airplanes, pull out their cellular phones and check stock prices on the Internet. Shoppers transfer money into their bank accounts through their cell phones while standing at the cash register in the store. Salespeople download updates for their presentations into their cell phones while riding to the meeting in a taxi.
Every four years, tens of thousands of people descend on Geneva for the biggest telecommunications conference in the world, the gathering sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union. Not long ago, the topics tended to center on the big telephone companies and on regulation, as befitting a meeting organized by the world's setter of telecom standards.
But this year, fueled by technological advances and especially the growth of the Internet, the most glittering displays and the biggest hype have focused on the convergence of wireless telephones and the Web.
The product of this convergence is a cell phone with a small screen that displays Web pages, which are beamed to the unit by the wireless network.
In both Europe and the United States, wireless providers are just beginning to offer such systems. The potential consumer demand for the service is one force behind the current consolidation in the industry. MCI WorldCom Inc.'s proposed acquisition of Sprint Corp. for $129 billion was driven by the company's need to get into wireless before the "smart phones" hit the market in a big way.
"I am strongly convinced that mobility is the dominant trend in the future and the key driving force in our industry," said Kurt Hellstrom, president of cell-phone manufacturer LM Ericsson AB.
"Work is no longer a place," said Jorma Ollila, chairman and chief executive of Nokia Corp., the world's biggest manufacturer of cell phones.
Sprint's digital wireless network, which has 4 million subscribers, in recent weeks began offering Web access on its new phones for an extra fee, and other carriers have similar plans.
In Europe, where cell-phone penetration is higher than in the United States, all the major manufacturers are marketing new models based on a different technology. The American phones at this point can access only specially designed Web sites that are formatted to fit the small screens on the phones.
The European phones use a technology known as wireless application protocol, or WAP, which strips out extraneous information and allows any site to be displayed. American firms--including Sprint PCS--are expected to adopt the European system by next year.
Even the new phones, however, are slower than the most basic desktop computer connected to the Internet with a dial-up modem. The smart phones are limited to a 9.6 kilobytes of data per second. Compression add-ons can multiply that by a factor of four, but experts here still expect that use of Internet-friendly phones will not explode until two things happen.
First, new radio technology will allow a phone to be on and connected to the global network all the time, without someone having to actually make a call. And second, a "third generation" of radio technology expected by 2001 will allow much faster transmission speeds.
The salespeople demonstrating WAP Internet access to the throngs in Geneva were clearly under instructions to obscure the current set of drawbacks. The display of Motorola Inc. phones was projected onto a large video screen so watchers would have less incentive to squint down at the phone. At Ericsson's area the salesperson projected the image onto a computer screen. At Nokia the demonstrator declined to access any Web sites that were not text-friendly "because it's not part of our presentation."
The Web phones weren't the only innovations displayed around the convention. There were other cool gizmos, such as cell phones the size of a double saltine cracker, cell phones in fashion colors--Nokia introduced this line at Kenzo's haute couture fashion show in Paris last week--and waterproof phones lined with Gore-Tex.
The promotional material from the big companies showed people using cell phones while bicycling, picnicking, rock climbing, doing construction work, riding a roller coaster and even working in the office. With so much wireless connection, was there any reason 60,000 people felt it necessary to get together in person here?
As Larry Wood, a marketing director for Ericsson who crosses the Atlantic for business two or three times a month from his base in Stockholm, put it, "there's nothing like a face-to-face meeting."