Review: Alltel's 'Celltop' Service Redefines Internet Use on Cell Phones

It remains to be seen whether the iPhone can bring Apple's simplifying magic to the mobile torture known as using the Internet on a cell phone.

Alltel Corp. (AT) isn't waiting to find out. On Thursday, the regional cell phone provider is launching a new application the company developed from scratch in hopes of making every handset a user-friendly breeze.

The application, Celltop, is designed to reduce the number of menus and clicks it takes to fetch news and information from the Web, or even just access a call log or handle text messages.

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Though marred with launch-day imperfections, the concept behind Celltop is so radically simple — bordering on obvious — that Alltel may succeed in winning over customers even as it works out the kinks.

The basic idea is to put a customer's favorite functions and information front and center with one click of the Celltop icon on the bottom of phone's main screen.

Once pressed, the application loads up to 20 customized "cells," displaying them two at a time, side-by-side.

The choices include no-brainer categories such as news, weather and stocks, as well as more personal interests such as ringtones and individual sports, ranging from baseball to rodeo.

The cells can be ordered so that the first two displayed are the ones you're most likely to use. The navigation circle below the screen is used to scroll left or right to display other pairs of cells.

Each cell offers a snapshot for quick consumption:

The news cell (from The Associated Press) displays top headlines. The weather cell features the current conditions in a desired city with the temperature in large digits just below a graphic (sun, clouds, etc.), with a three-day forecast below.

The text-message cell shows the name or number of the person who sent the latest arrivals, as well as the first few words of the note. The sports cells display scores from a given league. The stocks cell displays the latest prices for up to five market indexes or companies.

No other action is required, unless you want more information, in which case you click on the desired cell and then click on the headline or text message to read more, or perhaps a phone number from the call log.

The application can be set to update automatically every time a given cell is displayed, or each can be refreshed manually. This decision will likely be a function of cost, for while the Celltop application is free, each refresh will be treated as a minute of call time unless the subscriber has a $10 unlimited data plan.

All of this is far easier than booting up a mobile Web browser or accessing a carrier's media center to download a ringtone or video clip, a process that requires considerable patience and eagle eyes to spot what you're looking for in the menus.

So where does Celltop come up short?

Well, for starters, I can't possibly comprehend how they could launch this thing without cells for accessing popular Web mail and instant-messaging services.

While not everyone likes checking e-mail on the go, it's hard to imagine that such an option wouldn't become an instant favorite. Alltel says an e-mail cell is under development.

Another complaint was that the entries within many cells essentially led nowhere: If you clicked on a basketball score, you might get a quarter-by-quarter score, but no option to see a full box score or read the game story.

When you click a stock, there's no link to news involving that company. The only extra piece of data you get is the percentage change for that stock's price.

Worst of all, if there are no games or events scheduled in given sport — apparently a common occurrence on the rodeo circuit — the cell display is empty. How about some headlines?

Other petty annoyances include poor graphs and type styles that make it hard to determine which cells and which items within a cell or menu are highlighted. The color and brightness settings were almost useless.

All of this sounds pretty easy to correct, and while Celltop is only available on one handset at launch — the Samsung u520 — Alltel says it's determined to bring the application to every handset in its lineup by the end of 2007, not merely those in the $500-plus stratosphere the iPhone will occupy.