"There are no phone lines, no high-speed fiber-optic cables, connecting Dave Furey to the Internet. In fact, there are no wires at all. But there is little doubt that Furey is solidly connected to the future.
"Furey carries his Internet connection everywhere he goes -- in his wireless phone.
"He uses it to read his e-mails. He uses it to check the weather in a city before he travels there, to obtain driving directions to an unfamiliar place, or to get stock quotes. He uses it to link his laptop or his Palm organizer to the Internet from airports, cars and taxicabs.
"Furey is one of tens of thousands of Americans -- the exact number is unclear -- who are dabbling with a technology that may one day make the Internet a truly ubiquitous part of everyday life: a wireless phone linked to the World Wide Web.
"It already is for Furey, who says his Web phone spares him from having to lug a set of other electronic devices everywhere he goes.
"I can do pretty much all what I need on this one phone," said Furey, who lives in Phoenix and travels about a week each month selling engineering software for MSC Software, of Costa Mesa, Calif.
"Web phones unquestionably have their limitations. Most come with small screens that display only a few short lines of text at a time. The number of specially designed Web sites they reach is still small, especially compared with the vastness of the full-scale Internet. And there is no escaping the awkwardness of typing words on a keypad designed for phone numbers -- to get the letter "r," for instance, you have to tap the "7" key three times.
"Nor are Web phones the only wireless way to reach the Internet. Laptop and handheld computers can also connect, and may be better for people who work with lots of data or get messages that need quick reply.
"But phones such as Furey's, thanks to their easy mobility and relatively low cost, have a potential far beyond that high-tech niche. They are poised to put Web access in the pocket or purse of anyone who buys or replaces a wireless phone, which are already used by more than one in four Americans.
"The technology has caught on swiftly in Europe and Japan, and there are signs that the United States may soon be catching up.
"At least three commercials during the Super Bowl broadcast -- that celebrated barometer of what companies hope will capture the nation's attention -- featured people connecting to the Internet via their wireless Motorola phones. By the end of 2000, Motorola says, every wireless phone it ships will be able to reach the Web.
"William E. Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is among those singing the wireless Internet's praises. "It's going to further democratize the Internet," he told the Associated Press last week. "It's going to make it available to people who can't afford a $ 5,000 PC in their home."
"Affordability is credited with making Web phones a hit in their first year in Japan, where home access to the Internet is costly. In Europe, young people pepper each other with short text messages, using the phones "as a kind of chat line with friends," said Roberta Wiggins, an analyst with Boston's Yankee Group.
"Europeans have been able to send and receive text messages on cellular phones for years, but the volume of messages has doubled since last February. And they are only beginning to tap the wireless Internet's broader potential, Wiggins said. In Finland, for instance, developers are testing a system that enables a person to use a cell phone to buy a soda from a vending machine.
"In the United States so far, the biggest push has come from Sprint PCS, which in September began a national ad campaign for a service it calls the Wireless Web.
"Sprint is confident that the Web phone's basic promise -- data delivered anytime, anywhere, to a compact, multipurpose device -- will easily outweigh its shortcomings.
"As of this moment, the Wireless Web is something of a novelty," said Larry McDonnell, a Sprint spokesman. "But I think the gap between novelty and necessity may be very small."
"In the view of McDonnell and others, the wireless Internet today is where the wired version was in the mid-1990s.
"I think what you'll see is it will become more and more a part of our daily lives ... exactly the same phenomenon as happened with the Internet," said Jonathan Ruff, Motorola's director of business development.
"The Yankee Group in October issued a report calling the wireless Internet "the next big technological revolution." Wiggins, who expects the number of applications to mushroom, said the key was imagining how people and businesses could benefit from information while on the go.