Voice Versus the Wireless Web

Many web marketers are looking at the wireless web frenzy, wondering how they can jump aboard the hype train. Should you be doing the same thing? The answer may simpler than you think: Try reaching your mobile customers using a form of technology that is already widely adapted, simple to implement, intuitive to use, and accessible from every cellular phone — that’s right, voice.

It’s not glamorous, but it’s true. Phone applications like interactive voice response (IVR) allow users to access any information by dialing a number, listening to prompts, and entering responses by keypad. IVR applications were widely implemented and used long before the web was ever invented, and they are becoming even more important now that cellular phones are widespread.

But what about wireless web applications? Why ignore that valuable technology? Because most of your customers are still ignoring it.

  • There are 8 million wireless web devices in the United States.

  • There are only 1 million wireless web users.

That means that seven out of eight wireless web device owners are not using the wireless web features on their phones, palmtops, or messaging devices.

The Problem With Wireless

Why aren’t they using the technology? There are still severe limitations, including:

  1. Small screens: For web phones, there’s an incredibly small viewing area; palmtops are barely better.

  2. Speed of access: All devices have slow access.

  3. Limited or fragmented availability: Wireless web access is sporadic in many areas and entirely unavailable in other areas.

  4. Awkward input: Palm’s Graffiti, touchtone pads, or even tiny QWERTY keyboards are awkward for any amount of writing, even a short email.

  5. Price: Many technology limitations are being addressed by higher-end devices and services. But the entry price for a good wireless web palmtop with decent display, keyboard, and speed is easily $700 to $900, not including monthly access.

  6. Lack of user habit: It takes some patience and overcoming the learning curve to get the hang of it — connecting, putting in an address, typing. Users just aren’t used to the idea and protocol yet.

The first five limitations will be addressed eventually as the market and technology evolves. But the sixth is the most powerful.

News Flash: Your Web Phone Is a Phone

Let’s say you’re traveling and you’ve got a web-enabled phone. You need to get directions to a meeting. Would you call by phone and get automated directions, or would you connect to the web on the phone and look up directions?

In the vast majority of cases, users would choose to call by phone. Why? Because when faced with two solutions that accomplish the same thing, a user will choose the simplest solution. People like to choose the path of least resistance, and they are still more comfortable using their phones than they are using the wireless web.

Just look at your own web phone: It’s a phone, it works like a phone, people like to use it like a phone. So why spend resources developing a service that ignores your web phone’s most basic function? Why not just use it like a phone?

The truth is, the wireless web sits uncomfortably between the web and mobile phones — it’s not nearly as powerful as the web, but at least it’s mobile. In other words, there are few functions that a wireless device can do that aren’t already better accomplished by phone or PC. Thus, many, if not most, commonly referenced wireless web applications would translate better into web applications or phone-based services. For instance:

    Account status information: Your bank already offers this by phone. (Call up, enter your account number, receive balances and updates.) Would wireless enhance this feature? Minimally: Information would at least be viewable and savable.

    Locations: Phone-based locators (as well as web-based locators) let you enter a ZIP code or phone number to receive directions and contact information for the nearest location. Would wireless improve this service? Eventually, wireless services might be able to detect your location automatically, without your ZIP code or phone number, but the implementation of that technology is expensive, elaborate, and uncertain; it’s at least several years off.

    Messaging: Receiving and sending emails while traveling is an important use of wireless devices. But these same functions are already easily accomplished by phone applications that have been in use for years: Call in, listen to emails by text-to-speech, choose to reply, and your voice message is emailed as a WAV file or delivered to the recipient’s phone.

The Future of the Wireless Web

None of this is to say that the wireless web will dead-end. It will eventually mature, once pricing and accessibility are better. It already has two advantages over phone applications: persistent display or saving of information and display of visual information, such as maps. The problem is that these advantages are small and vital only in very narrow situations. The most commonly cited advantage: finding directions with a visual map while on the go. But would you pay $800 for this additional map feature over the phone that you already own? Not yet.

    NB: Marketers are now flinching that I skipped over one major advantage that is commonly hyped and valued by marketers, the golden pipe dream of wireless web marketing: location-sensitive, pushed messages (for example, pushing coupons for coffee as you walk past a Starbucks). Any service provider will tell you that this is years off and may never happen, depending on privacy laws, the FCC, the technology, and the huge price tag attached to cell-by-cell sensors.

    Pardon me while I get technical and legal: The implementation and timing of location detection is being closely tied to the FCC E911 mandate, which requires providers to detect the location of cellular callers during emergencies. But even looking at the FCC requirements, this geographic sensitivity is limited to a radius of 125 meters from the user, has a success rate of only 67 percent, and is required only in areas where the user base justifies the considerable cost of installing detection on each and every cell tower. It will be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to even comply with these e911 standards; it is doubtful that providers will voluntarily exceed these standards to meet the even pickier needs of commercial applications.

    Technical limitations aside, there are still questions on how location detection can be used in a marketing context and whether or not users (and, therefore, legislators) will let the privacy issues slide.

I hate to sound like a doomsayer for the wireless web craze. I do believe that it has potential and that all the wireless web’s little advantages will eventually add up to a killer app. But, marketers, rest assured that the wireless web hype train is moving far slower than the web train did, so you can afford to wait until this one gathers momentum. In the meantime, if you want to serve your mobile customers better, use what most of your customers are already using — phones.

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