Honey, I Shrunk the Internet

Without fail, every new year begets an occasion to look towards the future. Whether it’s Jeanne Dixon predicting alien invaders among the cast of The New Love Boat or a New Year’s resolution to swear off interns, the act of changing calendars seems to hold an almost mystical power. (Or at least something more mystical than, say, changing your cat’s litter box.)

In the New Year’s spirit of looking ahead, this week we review some of Greg’s recent, first-hand experience with something that’s bound to shape the Internet’s future.

Rich Media, Poor Media

Many of you have heard the Internet prophecies concerning broadband and rich media in the coming years. Look no further than our October 14 article. However, little has been said of a coming equal and opposite development for the Internet — call it smallband or poor media.

Before you think we’re trying to set Mr. Peabody’s Internet machine Way-Back to 1991, let’s be clear that we do expect web sites to add more bandwidth-intensive multimedia. Yet we also see a greater need for content so streamlined that it even makes the Ultra-Yahoo diet plan seem fattening.

The reason for this is the proliferation of what we call microbrowsers. No, not trendy beer that tastes like it was made in blind Uncle Clem’s bathtub. Rather, we are referring to hand-held devices such as pagers, cellular phones, and PDAs (i.e., Personal Digital Assistants) that will come with Internet access. (We’d call them Internet appliances, but that sounds like something that needs professional kitchen installation and defrosting every six months.)

For example, last month 3Com announced that wireless Internet access will come bundled with the Palm VII Connected Organizer — the next generation of the popular, hand-held Palm Pilot (and descendant of the fig-less Newton). Meanwhile, Nokia is developing cellular phones with integrated Internet features.

Some Assembly Required

Impatient for the future, and continually finding himself needing Internet access while away at meetings, Greg last fall hooked up a few scripts on his desktop computer to interact with his two-way pager. (A trivial task for a Unix computer, but one of those things Microsoft Windows makes notoriously impossible.)

The resulting configuration provided remote access to his files, programs, calendar, address book, email, and the web. By linking in a few additional scripts, he added services including yellow pages, white pages, driving directions, and stock quotes.

Sometimes gluing together existing technologies can be more compelling than inventing entirely new ones. Case and point with Tim Berners-Lee’s web — a jury-rigged concoction of hypertext, the Internet, and support for different email attachments (i.e., graphics, sounds, and so on).

Greg’s “network computer” of the PDA world probably won’t spawn a stock market craze reminiscent of the 1634 tulip speculation — or even the 1998 Furby speculation. But it has already become a rather indispensable tool in his business communication repertoire.

“What’s with this iceberg, Lucy? You have some esplaining to do!

There are obvious limitations, however. One is the “keyboard” interface, which makes the exercise of typing a simple email feel like you’ve earned the Super Mario high score on a Nintendo Game Boy.

Another is the screen size. We don’t care how much you liked wristwatch TVs in Dick Tracy comics — a miniature screen with even the most pin-point resolution will make Titanic look like snowy reruns of I Love Lucy. For better or worse, plain text is with us for the long haul.

Although easier to improve, message length is another limitation. Most of today’s portable text messaging devices limit messages to a couple hundred characters. Good for ransom notes, but not for the modern Internet company press release.

“Check, please.”

Combine the screen and message size limitations, and advertising on microbrowsers becomes next-to-impossible as a sustainable revenue model for content publishers. Take the advertising limitations on today’s web, remove all the images, and shrink down the precious message size. And if web users think ads are intrusive now, imagine how they’d react if they’re on the road and their batteries are draining on account of some home mortgage lender.

Subscriptions therefore seem to be the most likely business model that could support a potential microbrowser industry, with service providers redistributing revenues to content providers. Such an arrangement might resemble the relationship between carriers and networks in the cable TV industry — except with more “channels,” and hence more opportunities for an ESPN to cover under-appreciated sports like ostrich wrestling.

Incompatible With Today’s Web

While only a select few content providers have customized for microbrowsers — such as Avant Go‘s program of Palm computing channels — the overwhelming majority of today’s web sites fail miserably under these constraints.

Navigation links typically dominate the visible content — a complaint very much in common with Internet users who have disabilities. While this condition may improve if more content providers comply with the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, or WAI, it will undoubtedly require a significant effort for sites to be of any use to microbrowsers.

Fortunately, the W3C has recently created the Mobile Access Interest Group to specifically address the advancement of microbrowsers and the availability of Internet content for them.

But Can It Slice a Tomato?

So given all these limitations, what good are these microbrowsers?

Although about as conducive to recreational web surfing as an intranet site (“Oh, look! The employee handbook!”), microbrowsers excel at convenient and mobile access to computing resources, text-only email, and targeted information. While Christmas shopping on Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue a couple weeks back, Greg was able to locate and obtain directions to nearby stores and restaurants without hoping to find a lucky phone booth.

Sure — you can’t beat cellular phones at calling up the spouse for the correct number of digits in Aunt Girtha’s muumuu size. But there are many occasions where mobile, pocked-sized Internet access can be unparalleled — particularly for those on-the-go who already find Internet access indispensable.

Today’s two-way pagers, for example, are also far from secure. When Greg discovered a service problem, customer support told him there was no need to forward the bounced emails for inspection since they automatically receive (virtual) carbon copies of all messages!

However, microbrowsers could easily and effectively employ off-the-shelf Internet encryption technology, opening the gates for applications such as remote reporting tools, stock trading, and some limited forms of e-commerce.

Lose the Laptop, Holmes.

If you’re more dependent on the Internet and your office computer’s desktop than on any computing power slung over your shoulder, microbrowsers make a compelling argument to sacrifice utility for convenience. After all, this is the same tradeoff that inspired the personal computer industry in the 1970s.

So when can we expect to see more robust, commercial versions of these devices on the street?

For now, Motorola wireless may be reciting their seemingly unapologetic mantra, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” But with the coming of devices like the Palm VII — and given Greg’s experiences with a homemade prototype — it hopefully won’t be long before they’re as commonplace as holiday movies starring Robin Williams as a wacky doctor/professor.

All it needs is for someone invent this business and make lots of money at it so we don’t have to.

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