Priming the Data Pump

After the hype, the wireless industry attempts to clear the path to the anytime, anywhere net

We arent there yet.

The wireless data industry has been muttering this mantra for the past year. And though disappointing, its an improvement over its previous chant: Wireless data is here. The new one, at least, shows weve made it over the hype hump.

Information services — like news and weather — delivered to phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and pocket computers will likely jump-start the wireless Internet. But many hope mobile commerce (m-commerce) will produce mouth-watering revenue, and the numbers show exactly why the buzz about the wireless Web continues to build.

M-commerce services are expected to generate $200 billion by 2006, up from less than $1 billion in 2000, according to a recent study by Strategy Analytics. Those figures look believable next to projections for wireless data subscribers, which Cahners In-Stat Group projects at 1.3 billion by the end of 2004, up from 170 million in 2000.

The question is: How do we get from here — where only about half the phones in the U.S. are digital and even are fewer Internet-ready — to there?

Operators will have to start by targeting the right markets. Although NTT DoCoMo has seen substantial success delivering consumer services in Japan, similar offerings havent done so well in the U.S.

"I think B2C [business-to-consumer] is going to develop over time," said Roy Dube, partner and Americas leader for mobile business and wireless at PricewaterhouseCoopers. But first, coverage, bandwidth and devices will have to improve. Nevertheless, large companies are pursuing a different sort of wireless Internet strategy. "They see a lot more prospects implementing wireless in their own organizations," he said.

Countless start-ups are developing products for corporations hoping to mobilize their work forces. They provide secure bridges into corporate intranets, so salespeople, for example, can quickly access databases while on the road. Some corporations may also find it easier to equip mobile work forces with wireless-enabled PDAs or sophisticated smart phones instead of laptops, which take longer to boot up, cost more and are run by an unreliable operating system.

"When was the last time you had to reboot your phone?" Dube asked.