Mobile Web is not just hype

Behind the hype, the world of wireless Internet can offer genuine benefits, and it is time your business got prepared. Andrew...

Behind the hype, the world of wireless Internet can offer genuine benefits, and it is time your business got prepared. Andrew Robinson reports.

Last week BT Wireless launched to the def-ence of its wireless Internet services. That the UK's largest telecoms company feels it should have to do so at all shows how the company has taken to heart criticism of its commitment to emerging technologies such as wireless application protocol (Wap).

Peter Erskine, BT Wireless chief executive, admitted that Wap had been overhyped, but maintained that BT was receiving a lot of interest from customers.

He may be right. Busin-esses should be wary of thinking of wireless Internet as "Web lite" and resist the temptation to dismiss wireless as another over-hyped technology. Such mistakes would, however, be easy to understand given that wireless has definitely had more than its fair share of hype.

And it would be perfectly natural - especially for those savvy organisations that have been successful in the landline Internet world - to approach the developing technology by simply boiling down their successful land-line models and shoe-horning those applications into wireless technology.

The problem is that wireless is no more "landline lite" than television is "movies lite" - and the lesson from earlier technologies is clear.

In the same way that television developed new content and business models, wireless will lead to new content and models of its own, which will differ in important and fundamental ways from those using landline Internet.

Never mind that current mobile devices are woefully inferior to landline Internet connections. Sure, mobile devices are small, difficult to navigate, rarely in colour, and low resolution. And, in some key technical aspects, wireless applications will never equal the landline Web experience. Wireless bandwidth will always be more expensive; wireless screens will always be smaller; and user inputs more difficult and less robust than their landline counterparts.

But wireless is superior to landline Internet connectivity in at least three ways. Wireless Internet devices provide ubiquitous presence; location-based information and services; and they allow for a unique interaction between the physical and the virtual world.

Given that wireless communication devices are omni-present, they engender the possibilities of time-based services. Moreover, for many customers, wireless access will become the primary and dominant form of using Internet-based services.

In much of Europe and Asia, wireless Internet access via small handheld devices may be the only way to access the Internet.

Given its infancy we have not yet seen many commercial services that take advantage of this ubiquity.

Nonetheless, there are some early examples, such as financial services institutions and brokerages that deliver real-time information about changes in market conditions, and offer facilities that allow their customers to transact simultaneously in response to the changes.

While still in its infancy, it will not be long before we find services such as fast food restaurants that allow you to order via wireless communication as you approach the restaurant.

Wireless services will become absolutely critical for winning the lucrative market for wireless payment and banking services. The constant presence of the wireless handset will enable consumers to instantly pay anytime, anywhere, without cash or a credit card.

Fast food, taxis, buses, vending machines - all these will soon have the technology to receive wireless payments, opening huge growth opportunities for companies that seize the lead.

For companies to take advantage of wireless data communications, a few key questions should be asked:

  • Should/can our product or service be near the consumer at all times?

  • Does the consumer gain an advantage if this service is always available?

  • Does use of or demand for a product or service change during the day?

  • Can wireless transform the customer's perception and usage pattern?

  • Can the "anytime" aspect be harnessed to design new services?

  • Is there a time/value trade-off that may be used to quantify the opportunity?

    Wireless devices will have the capability to receive information that is tailored to customers' needs at a particular location. Research company Strategis predicts that location services will generate $33bn (£23bn) in revenues by 2005. Already, we are seeing early signs of location-based services, such as identifying the nearest cash machine.

    Location-based services will likely become much more robust. A car insurance company, for example, could enable its clients' wireless handsets to instantly file a claim from an accident site, providing exact location, time, accident details, information on other involved parties and their insurance companies, and almost-real-time police reports.

    As another example, a retailer might offer an instant coupon to a shopper who spends an afternoon on the high street near their store.

    In business-to-business markets, goods will be tracked from manufacturer to consumer providing information about their customers and product usage.

    Companies can begin to determine the power of location-based services for their business by asking a two critical questions: does consumer demand for the product vary by location? And, does the consumer gain an advantage by using wireless technology to customise or enhance the service based on their physical location?

    The Simon Property Group in the US has created two pilot services, one called Fastfrog and one called YourSherpa which unite the physical and virtual worlds in various Simon-owned shopping centres.

    The services, enabled by handheld devices distributed in the shopping centre, enable the shopper to scan the barcode of an item to call up further information on their palmtop device. It will not be long before more value-added services become available, such as comparison shopping and product availability.

    In fact, with the radio-based communication technology Blue Tooth, the time may come when all shopping will be Internet-assisted. So, if you are walking down the street and see a nice painting in a gallery window, you could point your handheld device at the item and instantaneously get information about the name of the piece, the artist, the price and so on.

    Furthermore, wireless communications will enable instant communication between consumers with similar interests.

    This wireless dimension is extremely powerful when combined with the advantages of interaction, pervasiveness and geographic awareness, because it allows consumers in a certain location at a specified time to be instantly unified by their common interests.

    Again, there are two questions companies should consider when creating wireless interaction-based services:

  • Does consumer demand for the service change according to the surrounding social structure?

  • Can the relationship with the consumer be strengthened by enabling the consumer to interact using wireless communications?

    Of course, many may wonder whether wireless Internet will have commercial viability in the near future given the state of the technology available today.

    In fact, while third generation (3G) wireless communications and precision location infrastructure, such as global positioning by satellite (GPS), may not be commercially available for 18 months, there are a number of developments occurring today that will dramatically hasten the availability of such services.

    Most operators are upgrading their GSM networks to GPRS, which, among other things, generates an eight-fold increase in bandwidth. Similarly, operators are upgrading their systems to "cell precision" which means that a customer's general location (within 1km) will be known without the customer actively indicating location.

    Hype or no hype, the wireless world is coming and it's time to prepare.

    Andrew Robinson is managing partner of Diamond Technology Partners' European practice

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