Mobile's coming - in slow motion

The mobile business revolution will happen - but much more slowly than the hype-merchants have been telling us. Finance and technology constraints have...

The mobile business revolution will happen - but much more slowly than the hype-merchants have been telling us. Finance and technology constraints have switched the pace of change to slow motion.

Motorola warned last week that wireless application protocol (Wap) handset sales are slowing down. Some Wap software companies bombed on that news. And this week's mobile commerce survey (p14) shows many UK users will not even begin to formulate mobile business strategies until the technology begins to stabilise.

Meanwhile, while governments get rich off the proceeds of third generation (3G) bandwidth auctions, the resulting private sector debt could severely hamper the roll-out of 3G to a mass consumer market.

What does that mean for IT strategists? In the first place, you can tell gibbering marketeers to calm down about Wap. It's not just expensive to do everything online twice (once for HTML, once for Wap): if customers don't like it, it's outright wasteful. In fact, if it were not for the delayed roll-out timetable for general packet radio services (GPRS) and then 3G networks, Wap could already be looking like the Betamax of mobile commerce, just one year after its UK launch.

But if Wap is cranky and expensive, there are even bigger problems when it comes to enabling mobile devices to receive true Internet communications.

The first bottleneck is bandwidth. While stop-gaps like GPRS and high speed circuit switching data (HSCSD) will make today's mobile datacomms better, they will not engineer a revolution in commercial behaviour. Few firms will base a long-term strategy on them - for the simple reason that they will be obsolete when 3G arrives.

JP Morgan's analysts wrote recently that "narrowband is the worst possible environment for business to consumer e-commerce". If that is true in the fixed-wire world it is doubly so for mobile commerce.

So we await 3G. But what will the charging model be? Will handset manufacturers avoid the chaos, delay and unreliability that has beset recent product development cycles? Can microprocessor manufacturers deliver a low-power solution for intelligent mobile devices that avoids pricing them out of the mass consumer market?

Until the answer to these questions becomes clear there are both technical and business reasons to make your mobile strategy cautious. If 3G suppliers can crack the technical problems, the content delivered will look far more like what it does now - so a strategy for hand-tweaking e-commerce platforms for mobile narrowband will be redundant.

And the current economics of the 3G market cannot guarantee mass market take-up.

If all this serves to deflate the hype about mobile commerce, many IT directors will welcome the chance to get on with solving today's problem: which is stabilising fixed-wire e-commerce networks and delivering return on investment.

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