Mobile Browsers Still Closed for Business

News Analysis: While a range of new technologies have appeared that offer better Web browsing capabilities on mobile devices, most experts agree that the software remains too limited and unpredictable for business use.

As someone who works for a telecommunications company that sells wholesale network services to other communications firms, Dave Buschmeyer considers himself to be a pretty savvy user of mobile devices.

Buschmeyer, a database and billing manager based in Mount Pleasant, S.C., said he has tried to stay ahead of the curve with most wireless trends, including mobile Internet services, but not even his professional experience has allowed him to overcome the challenges that remain in using some of the tools.

"Web access on this particular handset offers little worth looking at, an unpleasantly small screen to view it on, and a user interface so tiresome that you forget what youre looking for by the time you find it," said Buschmeyer, who uses a Sony-Ericsson T637 phone with service from Cingular Wireless.

"Beyond the larger Internet, even the sports, entertainment and news feeds pre-mapped onto the phone [by Cingular] demand time-consuming navigation, and arent much more than a good way to kill time while standing on line."

Welcome to the conundrum that is mobile Web access. While theres obvious utility in accessing the Internet via a handheld device, Web content remains ill-suited for most handsets, network coverage can be spotty and keyboard controls are frustrating, Buschmeyer said.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Opera Mini browser.

As a result of these factors, the question remains: What needs to happen to make mobile Web access—and the applications that could spawn from it—more useful to enterprise customers?

At the 3GSM World Forum on mobile technologies being held the week of Feb. 13 in Barcelona, Spain, nearly every handheld manufacturer in the world is expected to release new devices offering some sort of Internet connectivity.

The World Wide Web consortium, the group charged with maintaining the standards that serve as the backbone of the Internet itself, will release its latest Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0, a guideline that documents how to produce Web content and Web sites intended for delivery to wireless devices.

Yet, despite all that hard work, its not clear what sorts of customers are ready to jump onboard and give the wireless Web a real try. According to Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., the mobile Web does continue to grow in terms of traffic, but not at a spectacular rate.

Based on the firms annual benchmark survey of 65,000 U.S. households, some 15 percent of mobile services subscribers accessed the Internet from their devices in 2005, compared to only 6 percent in 2004. Forrester analysts said they expect that number to increase again in 2006.

With technologies such Microsofts Pocket Internet Explorer, Operas Mini and a growing range of device-oriented browsers boasting increasingly sophisticated mobile Web access, some industry watchers say they believe the handset will become used like a computer for accessing the Internet, opening up the market for services like Salesforce.coms hosted business applications, which can be accessed from almost any PC. Other experts maintain that client-server architecture will continue to power wireless business applications of the future.

Opera Predicts Singing Phones

While hardly an everyday name in business circles, Opera Software of Oslo, Norway, said it believes it recently introduced a technology that could help jump-start mobile Internet use. In late January, the company introduced its Opera Mini browser, which promises to make wireless Web access easier on millions of existing handsets.

Rather than attacking the more Net-friendly territory of larger devices such as Palms Treo line or Research In Motions BlackBerry PDAs, which are already winning over wireless Internet devotees with their onboard browsers, Opera said it believes it can inspire people with relatively low-tech devices to begin going online right away.

Capable of running on hundreds of millions of existing phones that run Java and use WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) to access the Web, the Mini, according to Opera, will convince legions of people to increase their mobile Net usage, and inspire more companies to employ wireless business tools.

Company officials said the availability of its mobile browser, and others such as Microsofts PocketIE, will reduce the need for mobile business applications providers to create client-server software programs that essentially include their own browsers.

Instead, the company maintains, applications developers will be able to build tools that run inside independent browsers, allowing users to access them from almost anyplace, or any device.

"Many of todays popular mobile business applications are closed-off client-server type products, but Mini shows how companies will also be able to take a different tack in offering wireless Web tools," said Eskil Sivertsen, an Opera spokesperson. "Whether it is creating their own version of the browser for a specific use or building less proprietary applications that can be accessed via any browser, theres no need for them to build their own interface anymore."

As with on the desktop, he said, mobile users will soon need nothing more than an ID and password to access their applications from any wireless device bearing a browser such as Mini or Pocket IE.

Next Page: Will the enterprise go client/server or browser-based?