Wireless data trials include free Visorphone

OmniSky's package simplifies mobile Internet access, but you still have to pay for airtime

OmniSky, the US wireless information provider, is enticing users to a trial run of its wireless Web and email service in the UK by throwing a free Handspring Visor and VisorPhone, as well as unlimited online time for three months.

The deal, launched through a joint venture between OmniSky and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation called Omnisky International, aims to establish an early foothold in the European market for wireless data. Many of the features OmniSky offers are already available elsewhere -- for example, the ability to surf the Web and receive emails wirelessly on a Palm OS device. OmniSky believes it can expand the market for the wireless Net by making it easier to set up and use.

"With one easy install you get corporate email, free Web surfing, and also the optimised content," said Jorgen Nordin, OmniSky International's director of business development. "We have direct relationships with content providers, and they provide their content so that it works well with this kind of device, whatever PDA is calling in."

A VisorPhone -- to hit European markets by summer -- is already capable of dialling into an ordinary ISP, surfing Web sites and sending and receiving email. OmniSky's service offers some extras, however, such as the ability to collect corporate email from behind a firewall. The company's servers reformat standard HTML Web pages on the fly to be more readable on a handheld-sized screen.

An attraction to business customers could be the system's relative convenience compared to existing options. Today a user would have to download Internet software from one source, sign up with a separate ISP and a separate wireless provider. OmniSky plans to provide a single source for hardware, software and billing, though it will adjust its package depending on the needs of customers.

"We'd like to have arrangements with the people manufacturing PDAs," said Nordin. "The software could also be available software-wise as a download from the Internet, or we could supply the whole thing ready-installed, with airtime, wireless connection and the data service."

Those who sign up to the trial will get the service -- with the three months of free airtime -- and a Handspring PDA with the long-awaited Visorphone attachment for £299. The programme costs £449 with the colour Visor Prism.

There are some drawbacks, however. The beta service will not include voice service, despite being offered over British Telecommunications' (quote: BT) ordinary 900MHz GSM network. And while OmniSky will be compatible with GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) networks when they are launched later this year, the initial service will require users to dial up their data connection, as with a WAP phone.

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