In the gadget-cluttered landscape of Silicon Valley, gee-whiz devices are so commonplace that most debut to a chorus of yawns. But a little black box that fastens to the back of laptop computers is managing to turn a few heads.
Those who have one can surf the Internet from almost anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area--on a park bench, in a car, on the commuter train--with no need for cords or a telephone jack, all for about $30 a month.
To technophiles, the Ricochet service, as it is called, might sound like manna from heaven. But the first thing you learn about the world of wireless Internet access is that in this still-budding industry, there's always a catch.
With Ricochet, a creation of Los Gatos-based Metricom Inc., the technology is impressive, but it is available only in San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
Other services have larger coverage areas, but require other sacrifices. Their prices are often too high, their Web access too slow or the content they can deliver too limited.
Most experts believe that wireless Internet services are improving, and that progress could accelerate now that the market has caught the attention of telecommunications giants, including Sprint, GTE and Bell Atlantic.
But among the confusing array of emerging technologies, none yet looks like a sure thing. And although Ricochet seems promising, analysts say the race for the wireless Internet market is just beginning.
"What Metricom is offering is a glimpse of the future," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a San Jose consulting firm. "The question is who's going to roll out fast enough to get that national audience."
The prize could be lucrative. Internet access accounted for a tiny portion of the $378-million wireless data services market in 1997, according to Strategis Group. But that market is expected to grow to $1.7 billion over the next five years, and Net access will account for a growing share of that.
Ricochet may have an early technological edge, but the company faces long odds. Two years after its service was launched, it has signed up only 20,000 subscribers, largely because of its geographic limitations. The company has been bleeding red ink while building its network, and reported a loss of $59 million last year on sales of $13 million.
Like cellular phone services, Ricochet transmits information over the radio spectrum. The company's wireless modems--about the size of a deck of cards--are transceivers that cost about $350, and can be attached to a laptop computer or other hand-held computing devices.
Ricochet's appeal is its speed and price. Aside from the modem, the service is just $29.95 a month for unlimited access, or $10 more than land-line connections to the Net. And access speeds approach 28.8 kilobits per second, as fast as most phone line connections. By next year, company officials say, access speeds will be 128 kbps.
Many subscribers say they rely on Ricochet so much that it becomes their primary means of logging onto the Net, even from home.
Brian Reaves, chief executive of Beyond Software Inc., said he uses Ricochet to access the Net and his company's private network during staff meetings and when he is visiting customers.
"I've even connected while I was in an automobile," he said.
But Ricochet's technological advantage is also something of a burden. Even Chief Executive Robert Dilworth acknowledges that building the company's network "is a big hassle."
Cellular phone networks can use a single transceiver to cover several square miles. But Ricochet, which dwells in a low-power band of the radio spectrum, needs at least seven transceivers to cover a single square mile. Metricom has 6,000 devices sprinkled around the Bay Area alone, perched atop street lamps like so many pigeons.
What's more, Metricom often spends years haggling with local governments and utilities to get permission to use their poles. "In the Bay Area, we had to negotiate with 80 cities," Dilworth said. "That's 80 separate city council meetings."
The task has been even more daunting in Southern California, where Metricom has had to deal with 117 municipalities, and isn't finished yet. The company has started installing its transceivers on the Westside, and said it hopes to begin offering service in Southern California next year.
Meanwhile, the big names in wireless communication are starting to move in. GTE, for instance, recently unveiled a service called Internet on the Run for $29.95 a month. Bell Atlantic offers a similar service.
But these giants have problems of their own. For starters, their networks struggle to achieve top speeds of just 14.4 kbps, painfully slow for Web surfing. With that in mind, GTE is catering to businesspeople who want to be able to download small chunks of data, such as appointment logs, e-mail and stock quotes.
Further, their coverage areas don't include Southern California either, or many other regions of the country, because their voice networks in those areas have to be upgraded to handle data.
There are a few wireless-data services, such as ARDIS Personal Messaging and RAM Mobile Data, that do cover most of the United States. But these services are really designed for salespeople and field workers who need to exchange brief messages. They don't offer Internet access.
Analysts say that Metricom's real competition is likely to come from telecommunications companies that in the last two years have rolled out digital voice networks called PCS that can easily be adapted to carrying data.
Sprint, for example, plans to unveil its own Internet service by the end of the year, and though access speeds will initially be just 14.4 kbps, enormous bandwidth breakthroughs are on the horizon, spokesman Tom Murphy said.
Sprint officials say that their network will be able to deliver wireless Internet access at blazing speeds of up to 3 megabits per second within five years. What's more, Sprint will be able to offer both voice and data services.
In the meantime, Metricom is scrambling to build out its still-tiny network.
The company got a major boost last month when a Seattle-based investment group headed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen took a controlling interest in Metricom with a $56-million investment.
That gave the company cash to ramp up its building plans and the backing to be taken seriously by its cellular rivals.
"We don't feel so much like a little guy anymore," Dilworth said. "The guys in Seattle have more net worth than most telecommunications companies."
Times staff writer Greg Miller can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org