3G mobile woes continue

Telecommunications companies are trying to predict which of the third-generation mobile services are going to appeal most to...

Telecommunications companies are trying to predict which of the third-generation mobile services are going to appeal most to fickle consumers

David Bicknell

The one light that you can most frequently see burning late at night in the offices of telecommunications and mobile phone companies belongs to that of the chief strategist for third-generation (3G) mobile services.

Their baffled and weary looks are being mirrored by strategists in a string of e-commerce specialist companies around the globe. But it is telecommunications companies that are the most worried. Their problem is how to predict what services consumers are most likely to want - or rather, what services they can be seduced to use - and how much they can be persuaded to pay.

The irony about this so-called e-commerce revolution is that the people with the power are the consumers and, as in many "real" revolutions, predicting what the masses might do next is difficult.

Consumers were persuaded that e-commerce was the thing, but rather than use PCs - or even televisions - the device that took off was the mobile phone. The next trick for services providers was to come up with a completely different form of messaging, text messaging - simple, cheap, and effective.

Surely, with this preponderance of devices, and the ability to locate people at any time, 3G services in the future could include video e-mails, 3D maps, downloading music to a phone, videoconferencing, and Net transactions. Just think of the money to be made.

Not so. All that consumers really want to do, according to a report in the Wall St Journal from the 2001 3GSM Congress, is communicate with their friends as cheaply and effectively as possible.

There will always be the techno-buff who wants to be at the leading edge, but the majority want to keep it simple, which is why those companies that forked out billions for mobile licences are looking pretty silly.

I believe bricks-and-mortar companies getting to grips with e-business can see this. At a recent meeting organised by Computer Weekly's sister title E-Business Review, while many e-business specialists admitted that they were looking at pilots, or at least examining the prospects for interactive TV, there was a healthy scepticism over its likely success.

Carol Dukes, chief executive of online and mail order health products specialist ThinkNatural, came up with an excellent line to describe interactive TV. She called it "Teletext just got way better."

Dukes, whose company has benefited from a close relationship with B&Qparent Kingfisher, which has taken a 12.5% stake in it, has a track record of building online businesses.

She worked for magazine publisher EMAP and TV broadcaster Carlton before setting up ThinkNatural. And ThinkNatural appears to have the best of both worlds, having picked on an area - alternative health products - for which many are crying out for information via the Web, tying it in with a mail order operation, and having a presence in high-street stores such as Superdrug.

She advises those wrestling with e-business within traditional firms to:

  • Do something online which doesn't hurt the existing brand. If you launch a new brand, it means you can move without being hampered by worrying over how the traditional brand might be affected

  • Don't necessarily think of selling online. Are there ways of using the Web to cut company costs, ie "pick low hanging fruit"

  • Is there a struggling dotcom you can buy to speed up your own efforts?

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