Mad on mobile

Mobile data was supposed to be the next big thing for e-commerce players, but so far has failed to take off.

Mobile data was supposed to be the next big thing for e-commerce players, but so far has failed to take off.

There has always been a fuss about mobile data, but, like many technologies, it has only become visible since it moved into the consumer space.

Companies have been offering mobile data for corporates since the early 1990s, for applications such as communicating with fleet vehicles. But the emergence of cheap digital cellular services has opened up the market for data accessible over mobile phones and PDAs, creating a possible outlet for business-to-business and business-to-consumer e-commerce services.

What standards exist?
This is where the terms 2G, 2.5G and 3G become relevant. Throughout most of the 1990s, the best bet for data networks was the second generation GSM standard, adopted by most European players. This could realistically send data at only 14,400 bits per second, and wasn't that reliable.

Now, however, 2.5G networks are emerging, based on two main standards in the UK - general packet radio service (GPRS) and high speed circuit switched data service (HSCSD).

The main benefit of GPRS is that it is an always-on system - unlike conventional GSM, you don't have to initiate a call from your mobile device to send data, and you don't have to pay by the minute. You are always connected to the network and you only pay for the data sent and received. This makes it very useful for intuitively accessing online services.

HSCSD, on the other hand, focuses more on bandwidth than on constant connection and is perceived to be faster than GPRS. Orange, for example, runs networks using both standards, but its HSCSD network supports the cellular videophone that was recently launched by the company.

On top of these technologies sit the protocols that enable mobile data to be sent (if a 2.5G or 3G network is the road along which mobile data is sent, then these protocols would be the vehicles containing that data). The main protocol in the UK is the wireless access protocol (WAP), although iMode, which has been successful in Japan, is making its way into Europe.

I keep hearing about a WAP backlash - what happened?
The vendors hyped up the capabilities of WAP technology to sell more equipment and boost their stock prices. In reality, the technology simply could not meet these inflated user expectations. You just can't browse the Internet on a WAP phone with a tiny screen in the same way that you can do it on a PC browser.

So is mobile data dead?
Rumours of its death have been exaggerated. It is still rich with opportunities, but the market will have to educate disillusioned consumers about the benefits of newer-generation technologies like GPRS, which won't be easy.

Three things will drive the market for mobile data. Firstly, what the market needs is a killer application, and offering people the ability to look up stock prices and sports scores on WAP phones simply won't cut it. Mobile commerce is being proposed as the big driver for mobile data, and location-based services will be particularly important.

Secondly, it needs more consumer-friendly devices and software interfaces because these are a priority for non-corporate users. iMode offers full screen colour, and there are rumours that future generations of WAP will also offer colour to users. These must be integrated into more attractive devices, as current smartphone screens are laughable.

Finally, wireless instant messaging and peer-to-peer computing - two technologies looking for a market - will merge together in the coming months to create an attractive mobile data offering. Imagine, for example, a mobile phone that told you when a colleague had switched on their PC in the office, or instantly alerted you if your flight time had been changed.

What about 3G?
Promising even higher bandwidths, 3G technology faces severe problems. Firstly, network providers are finding it difficult to implement, and secondly, they have invested so much money in ridiculous bandwidth licensing fees that it will be hard for them to make a sufficient amount of money back. This is bound to affect user pricing and slow down adoption.

Is there a skills shortage for mobile developers?
Security skills are important in this area, as are WAP coding and mobile networking expertise. In an IT jobs market that is generally flat, mobile data professionals still demand a premium.

The critical problem here is that companies investing in developing the services are unlikely to see major returns for around 18 months - they have to wait for the market to take off and achieve a critical mass.

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