Jump Start

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-03-05 Print this article Print

Jump Start

A number of factors, both tangible and intangible, must be improved upon for the wireless Web to take off.

"A lot has to do with calling it the wireless Internet," Dube said. Using a wireless handset to access information via the Internet is nothing like surfing the Web with a PC, so customers must be taught to expect that difference.

"Internally, we think a challenge for us is consumer education," said Sridhar Ranganathan, general manager at Yahoo! Everywhere. "People get into a fixed pattern of usage." Even though Yahoo! users are often technically savvy, they need to learn that the experience of accessing Yahoo! content from a mobile phone will be quite different than on a PC, he said.

Sprint PCS, which has the largest wireless Internet mind share among consumers in the U.S., has broken that trail with its marketing campaigns. "One thing that Sprint PCS has done for the wireless Web industry overall is their strong marketing campaign raised the level of public awareness on the wireless Web hundreds of percent," Walters said.

While customer education is important, so are tools, and end users dont yet have devices that will encourage aggressive use. For starters, in the U.S., only half of the phones out there are digital, Dube said. Only a very small percentage of those are Wireless Application Protocol-enabled to allow for access to Internet content.

Today, a mere 7 percent of American adults say that they or someone in their household uses a mobile phone to access the Internet, according to a study by Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch. Those customers come from a narrow user base, primarily males age 18 to 34 years old from households earning $100,000 or more.

But even those few wireless Web users cant all communicate with each other because of different transmission standards, which fragments the market even further. Walters has several phones sitting on his desk that he uses regularly. He could pick up an AT&T Wireless handset and a VoiceStream Wireless phone, which look identical. "Theyre both capable of sending and receiving SMS [Short Message Service] — except to each other," he said.

The success of NTT DoCoMos i-mode service may be testament to just how much a single standard can foster a market. NTT DoCoMo designed one platform end-to-end so developers dont have to gamble on which standard to use. As a result, NTT DoCoMos service has been by far the fastest-growing wireless Internet service in the world, gathering more than 19 million customers in less than two years. By contrast, the U.S. market has a slew of different technologies at work, making it a confusing market that has been slow to take off.

In Europe, all operators use a common air interface, or transmission, standard, which is surely why text messaging is so popular there. The push toward 3G networks could alleviate some of the standards problems, ultimately whittling the number of air interface standards to two instead of the current three in the U.S.

In the interim, some companies are capitalizing on the multiple-standards problem. IdeaEdge calls it "chaos theory."

"Its a new technology with lots of different standards that dont interact," ideaEdges Collas said. "We have a lot of focus on launching corporations that help companies bridge that problem."

Although the U.S. is behind many parts of the world in development and penetration of the wireless Internet, some advantages could allow the country to catch up. "The widely held view that the U.S. is well behind Europe and Japan has some credence," said Omar Javaid, co-founder and chairman of Mobilocity, a mobile Internet consulting firm. But thats only in the realm of wireless infrastructure and network build-out. "The e-business infrastructure is not nearly as advanced as in the U.S. So you have a puzzle thats different in different parts of the world."

Its both an advantage and disadvantage that the U.S. has a mature Internet market. While that maturity can serve as a leg up when m-commerce comes of age, many believe it has slowed the adoption of wireless Internet services because consumers here, accustomed to the landline Internet, arent impressed with the slow, cumbersome wireless version. (See related story on page 57.)

Regardless of where you are on the globe, though, the wireless phones arent designed for easy access to data services. "Theyre more geared toward the consumption of voice," Yahoo!s Ranganathan said. Current phones have small displays, limited browser capabilities and require users to triple-tap keys to spell out words. Developments in Japan, with i-modes color screens and easy-to-use interface, as well as the adoption rates of PDAs are positive trends that signal more user-friendly phones may be on the horizon, he said.

Bandwidth is also a significant gating factor for the wireless Internet. Today, most wireless services are capable of moving data at only 9.6 kilobits per second. Some top out at 19.2 Kbps — still a snails pace compared with the speeds most people are used to on the wired Web.

Operators are plugging away, installing new gear that will boost transmission speeds, but equipment upgrades take time. Although the increased bandwidth will open the door to new kinds of services, including video, current networks can support plenty of interesting services. "Its not to say you cant do things now," Dube said. "You just have to structure the solutions accordingly."


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