For the last couple of days I've been playing with my latest tech toy, the Nokia "please don't call it a phone" N800.
This and similar devices, including the iPhone, have world-changing implications for newsgathering as well as publishing and distribution.
I'll get to those points shortly, but first a few words about why I went with the N800.
I conquered my iPhone lust rather quickly by thinking about the true cost, which (including the mandatory contract) some have estimated at well over $2,000 with opportunity costs as high as $17,670. Coincidentally, that high figure is about a dollar per word in the restrictive contract.
So, for $357.98 on Amazon.com I bought the N800, which is not a phone. It's an Internet tablet. Like the iPhone, it uses Wi-fi connections if they're available. Unlike the iPhone, it doesn't use the phone network ... unless you have a Bluetooth-capable cellphone in your pocket. That's my next step, which I'll take when I get around to it. My current phone, which runs Microsoft's hellish mobile phone software, doesn't do Bluetooth.
The N800 does let me make worldwide phone calls via Skype, which isn't available for the iPhone. And it includes a Web browser with both Opera and Mozilla engines, full Ajax, and Flash 9. It has instant messaging on pretty much every existing service, email, games and several media players. I can listen to the BBC streaming through the net, or local radio stations via FM. I can watch YouTube.
It lacks Apple's single-minded focus on simplicity. What you get in trade is flexibility and openness -- under the hood, it's running Debian Linux. And unlike the iPhone, Nokia lets you open the hood and tinker as much as you want.
For the mobile journalist, this could be the office in a pocket. Forget the backpack. Paired with an $80 folding Bluetooth keyboard, you have a pretty decent ultralight writing workstation. Add a camera that stores images or videos on an SD card and you can file (or blog) from Taco Bell. (The SD card is necessary because the N800 doesn't have a host-mode USB connector, but it does have a card reader.)
For everyone else, this is the world in your pocket. It's the real Internet, not the fake Internet the telcos have been peddling. The zoomable, 800-pixel browser means you can know everything that can be discovered through Google and Wikipedia. Every news site, every blog, every MP3 stream, every podcast.
But isn't the Wi-fi limitation a problem? Less than you might think. Where I work in Augusta, Ga., there is free Wi-fi all over downtown: city-supplied service on the Augusta Common, open service at most of the bars and restaurants. Fast-food joints, libraries and most hotels provide free service. I can read BBC News while waiting in the car line at Wendy's. Sprint is supposedly preparing a version of the N800 that will use Wi-max, a wide-area broadband technology that can blanket entire cities just like cellphones can.
So, why would you pick up a copy of the local newspaper to read over lunch if you have all of this at your fingertips?
Websites no longer have to offer horrid phone-tech services in order to reach mobile users. Pretty much everything currently deployed will work just fine.
But there is a challenge easily overlooked: Create new kinds of content and services tailored to mobile needs. That's where the opportunities are waiting, and if our track record holds up, it's where local newspapers will drop the ball. We now have the whole world at our fingertips, but it doesn't have to be the old world.