The False Messiahs of Wireless

If you were a wireless Internet conference groupie, you’d undoubtedly know that there are two things every wireless wannabe is sticking in their next press release: support for MP3 files and Bluetooth. While there’s a lot of buzz and excitement about these technologies on the surface, a closer examination reveals just how far we all have to go before we can make sense of the wireless Internet.

Latency Killed the Net Radio Star

Let’s start with MP3 files. There’s no question that MP3 music is a huge hit with Internet users putting the music industry on the defensive and putting Napster on the cover of Time Magazine. But with so many wireless companies, products, and technologies hoping to break into the mainstream marketplace, is this just wishful thinking that some of the consumer-demand magic of MP3s will somehow rub off?

Throughout its brief history, fickleness has characterized Internet business. Are the VCs funding B2C or B2B? Is content king or is it commerce? Is it better to be a pure virtual, frictionless e-business or a click-and-mortar hybrid? We can’t count the number of e-businesses that once proudly emblazoned dot-com in their names but are now desperately dissociating themselves from the associated stigma. (For the record, dot-com should have always remained part of an address. As part of a business name, it shows no aspirations beyond a single channel.)

Industry fads and trends churn faster than Italian women’s shoe styles. Thus, hitching your wagon to one of these trends makes for a dangerous, often unsustainable strategy. If MP3-playing handheld devices were such a killer concept, why hasn’t the established Diamond Rio made the cover of “Time” by now?

That such a device should also have wireless Internet access implies consumers will download music from the ether at several megabytes per song. For anyone familiar with wireless Internet access, the latency is bad enough for a single three-digit stock quote. How many consumers will tolerate replacing the batteries mid-wail during a download of Celine Dion’s latest CD, “All My Kidney Stones”?

We’ll stick to FM radio for now, thank you very much.

Dial “S” for Spam

Bluetooth, on the other hand, is a communications standard that enables different devices from laptops to cell phones to pagers to exchange data over short-range radio links. Think of the infrared port communication between a PC and printer: no cables required. Bluetooth is backed by many of the big guns in high-tech communications (including Intel, IBM, 3Com, Ericsson, Lucent, Microsoft, and Nokia), so it’s no wonder that everyone is standing at attention.

While Bluetooth is bound to have many great applications, not everyone sees it purely as a tool for the forces of good. Last week, Sean Carton wrote about some of the scenarios unbridled marketers envision for this technology: wired storefronts that spam your wireless Internet device with a stream of unwanted offers as you walk by. Call it the assault of the e-barkers.

In the recesses of the marketer’s fantasy dreamland, wireless users will be enthralled with amazing deals around every corner for everything they want to buy. And then some. “My God! A 24-cubic-foot refrigerator with a crushed ice dispenser? We could use a third one at this price!”

Of course, the reality is that consumers rarely need to buy much of anything. Purchasing decisions beyond the day’s burger and fries are generally few and far between. And as with e-commerce, m-commerce doesn’t magically add to our disposable incomes.

Thus, consumers are certain to regard an alarming number of these messages as unwelcome spam. Analogous to public compassion fatigue toward the panhandling homeless, wireless users will simply tune out or turn off.

Always beware ideas that enamor marketers more than consumers.

Beating the Hedge Hogs

We’ve often wondered if the web is really just one giant Christo conceptual art piece that became a runaway hit with the public. The wireless Internet, in contrast, is unquestionably a work in progress with no guarantee of public acceptance. Many e-businesses are arguably hedging their bets with their wireless initiatives.

While it’s far too early to tell where this is all headed, one thing is for certain: The wireless Internet is like an invited guest. If they come over too often, drink all your beer, and leave piles of garbage behind, they’ll never be invited back. Wireless e-businesses that crassly try to land a direct sale at every opportunity like a desperate, singles bar shark trying to score with anything that moves will quickly lose favor to helpful, subtler, and less-invasive competitors.

Call it permission marketing if you like. Consumers will invite contact from the wireless winners at multiple times during the day or week. While the softer sell isn’t always better, regularly positioning yourself in front of consumers will keep you top-of-mind when they finally are at one of their purchasing decision times.

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