Uncovering The Secrets Of The Wireless World

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By Miro Stoichev

Come on…admit it. How many of you will confess to not quite understanding, before this Presidential election, what the heck the Electoral College is. If you found yourself wondering if the College’s big event in December was actually some lower-tier college football bowl game, you’re probably not alone. Just as getting the most votes doesn’t ensure you will win an election is the dirty little secret of Presidential politics, the wild and wooly world of the wireless Internet has its own share of dirty secrets as well. Without going out of my way to burst any well-funded startups’ bubbles, I thought I’d spend a little time uncovering a few of these secrets – at least as I see them. Now…the envelope, please!

Developing WAP applications is not difficult – working with the handsets and gateways are

Probably not a shock to anyone who’s already delved into the technology. Still, there seems to be a bit of a mystique surrounding WAP (and its display technology, WML) when, in actuality, WML is just a standardized XML schema. From a development viewpoint, the incredible task of getting an application to behave acceptably across a wide range of devices and through a variety of carrier gateways is the technology’s biggest stumbling block. The argument over i-Mode/CHTML, XHTML, and WML is focusing simply on the top layer in the WAP architecture – a layer that can be easily replaced. More attention needs to be focused (as is currently being done) on the problem of browser/device compliance and gateway interoperability.

This isn’t the Internet, circa 1994

A bit of a second gold rush mentality seemed to set in earlier this year as experts began to fall all over themselves to proclaim the wireless Internet the next revolution in data access. While this will be true, long-term, a critical difference exists between this “revolution” and the World Wide Web revolution of the mid-90’s. That revolution was all about access and the leveling power of information distribution. This revolution is more about the freedom of mobility and convenience – not access and information. Wireless carriers, at the end of the day, control the hardware and software in the palm of your hand which will serve to make the rich richer from a content/commerce point of view. I just don’t foresee many “started in a graduate school computer lab” rags-to-riches stories coming from this revolution. Instead, it will be all about the partnerships and level of services you are able to bring to the big players to enhance their offerings.

The wireless Internet is nothing new

The much-hyped wireless technologies used by Palm.Net and AT&T; PocketNet are actually technologies that have been in place in North America for well over five years (CDPD and Mobitex). The only recent advance is the thought of tieing a mini-Web browser on top of the service. Despite the talk of a new frontier and the ability to check stock quotes in the palm of your hand, the reality is that not much new groundwork has been laid yet. All of these capabilities have been in place for years throughout much of North America and gaping coverage holes still exist in every major wireless data network. Until 3G technologies are fully implemented, we won’t see any quantum leaps forward. Note that this doesn’t mean that it is not possible to build a cost-effective business solution that delivers a handsome return on your investment. It simply illustrates the glacial pace of change and expense of infrastructure buildouts in the wireless telecommunications industry.

Battery power is the driving constraint in lightspeed advances in mobile computing

Ouch…This one hurts me as much as it hurts you. We can now run Linux on a watch and support streaming video to any number of devices. Wireless communications bandwidth is available in labs, if not yet deployed to the field, but battery life is a real problem that is still waiting to be solved.

Cultural differences affect wireless data adoption rates

In the case of the mobile Internet, it is not necessarily a case of “build it and they will come”. The fact is that highly mobile individuals have a much greater need for wireless data services. Adoption rates are also affected by local wired internet access charges, billing models (a primary reason behind the success of DoCoMo’s i-Mode service), and the mobility of consumers in the area. Small towns in rural America (where the average citizen may travel by car only very short distances on a daily basis) will be far less likely to make use of mobile applications as compared to their urban counterparts in Tokyo or New York City.

3G networks will not immediately deliver remarkable bandwidth to phones

Heavily-hyped technologies such as GPRS are great first steps because they are always on and support the shift to packet data however we are now learning that most of the bandwidth figures initially tossed around are now theoretical only are or not operationally practical. I don’t believe this is a particularly big deal because, in my opinion, bandwidth is not what is currently slowing down the adoption and uptake of mobile services. Still, wireless technology companies and network operators need to be careful to accurately paint the correct picture to consumers to avoid the backlash that a technology such as WAP is now seeing from the press and other segments of the technology industry.

Voice is still the killer mobile app

Sorry – someone had to say it. Despite the ability to check news, send email, or order books from my phone, I still overwhelmingly use it to, gasp, talk to other people! The geek in me doesn’t mind using the telephone’s keypad to enter brief messages but, I can assure you, the average consumer will refuse to do it. I believe that voice portals make perfect sense because they’re taking advantage of a mobile phone’s strength (communications) while downplaying its weaknesses (small display and poor data entry capabilities). Adding in the ability to control a device via voice commands would provide the best of both worlds: finding information or generating a text message while concentrating on the task at hand (driving a car, crossing a street, etc.).

The enterprise is the killer market for now

Much of the industry and media focus has been on cool new services such as gaming, chatting, and online shopping. While it’s not nearly as fun to talk about, the market segments that have been making use of wireless data for nearly a decade are industrial stalwarts such as transportation, repair, and utilities. The ability to automate sales forces and completely link the entire supply chain using wireless technologies will see these industries continuing to push the envelope far ahead of the consumer-oriented businesses.

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