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Originally published Monday, March 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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iPhone has the answers, and that's the problem

When she whipped out her iPhone, Erica Sadum could feel her husband's eyes roll. But she had a point to prove. In less than a minute, she...

Los Angeles Times

When she whipped out her iPhone, Erica Sadum could feel her husband's eyes roll. But she had a point to prove. In less than a minute, she was able to report to the skeptics around the dinner table that Menno Simons, whose followers are known as Mennonites, was in fact born in 1496.

Apple's iPhone, which went on sale nine months ago, isn't the only smartphone that provides itinerant access to the Web. But its wide screen and top-quality browser make it easy to use and read, which means it can in seconds change a lighthearted conversation into the pursuit of truth.

"It's turned me from a really annoying know-it-all into an incredibly annoying know-it-all, with the Internet to back me up," said Sadum, a technology writer in Denver. "It's not a social advantage."

New technology always brings new habits with it, some of them unpopular. The mobile handset took phone calls into the streets, and the BlackBerry created a generation of thumb-typing e-mail addicts. Some smartphones hook their owners up to facts and figures that ordinary people pull off the Internet with a proper computer.

As University of Southern California student and iPhoner Cliff Smith put it, "I have the ability to clear up any confusion."

Fewer than 1 percent of the 219 million cellphones in the United States are iPhones, according to M:Metrics. That hasn't been enough to trigger a broader boom of Internet browsing on handheld gadgets.

The percentage of U.S. mobile phone users surfing the Internet over the past year has stayed flat at 13 percent, M:Metrics found.

Internet companies, though, report they have been getting more traffic from mobile devices, much of it from outside the U.S.

And the companies have noticed that iPhoners use their handsets differently from other owners of mobile phones. They search the Internet more, particularly for movies, restaurants and news, market researchers say, and they watch more videos on YouTube and do more online banking.

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are betting that mobile services and advertising will be the next big business opportunity.

For example, the Yahoo Go service for Internet-connected cellphones (not yet available for the iPhone) showcases a program called PriceCheck. It allows people to check prices at a number of stores by entering a product's bar code number.

"Maybe you will remember to do price comparisons for flat-screen TVs online before you head out the door to a store like Best Buy, but maybe not," said Steve Boom, a Yahoo senior vice president. "Your need for that kind of information is immediate."

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Internet check

Wil Shipley, a Seattle software developer, uses his iPhone at the Whole Foods fish counter to check Web sites for updates on which seafood is the most environmentally correct to purchase. He quizzes the staff on where and how a fish was caught.

The clerks don't mind. "He's confirming on the Internet things that I am saying," said Whole Foods' Ken Shugarts.

That's nice, but as Sadum warned, you should pick your iPhone moments carefully. "The second you go into the pocket for the iPhone, you have disconnected yourself from the conversation," she said. "No one has the patience."

Nora Wells certainly doesn't. When she's with iPhone-toting friends and a question comes up, she braces herself, as she did recently when it was suggested that they go out for beers "stat." Inevitably, someone wanted the definition.

"The iPhone even gave us the Latin," said Wells, a radio traffic reporter who learned that stat is an abbreviation of statim, "immediately," often used in the medical field. "We probably could have been having our beer in the amount of time it took to look it up."

Pressure to get one

The proud owner of a Motorola Razr cellphone, Wells worries that iPhoneism might overtake even her.

"I feel so pressured to get one," the 27-year-old resident of Venice, Calif., said. "People expect it from me. It's the hip, young, fun thing to do."

Or not. Backstage recently in a Little Rock, Ark., theater, actress Natalie Canerday said the cast of a play was enjoying debating the year Bruce Springsteen's album "Born to Run" was released. Then the director took out his iPhone.

All conversation stopped as he sought the answer: 1975, according to Wikipedia.

"Everyone said, 'Oh,' " Canerday said.

Daniel Bernstein had one awkward iPhone moment when he arranged to meet friends at a bowling alley in Daly City, Calif., near San Francisco. The lanes were booked. Bernstein used his iPhone to locate another bowling alley 10 miles away, find out how long the wait for a lane was and get driving directions.

Bernstein, director of business development at an Internet company, said his friends seemed more irked than appreciative. "They said, 'Thank you, iPhone,' " and not very nicely.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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