Wireless Web: Beyond the Hype

Don’t me wrong: I’m a BIG booster of the wireless web. If you’ve been reading this column for a while or happened to see me at the last ClickZ conference or have had the dubious pleasure of meeting me in a dark alley, you know that I’m pretty excited about the potential of the wireless web.

Here’s a new way of communicating with people any time, anywhere, in a way that’s exactly in sync with what people want in terms of control and mobility in their lives. Instant access to all the Net’s resources, right in your pocket… pretty cool!

But there’s a problem… have you actually tried to use this stuff? With the exception of wireless PDAs (which have large-enough screens to allow for sloppy information design and pens for easy input), the experience of browsing the web via a cell phone is a little less than… er… satisfying. Sure, it’s nice that we now have access to news any time we want, but do you really want to read the front page of the New York Times on a one-inch by two-inch screen?

Some other folks are starting to see beyond the hype. Jakob Nielsen, one of the world’s authorities on site usability, wrote a pretty insightful column at the beginning of July where he basically pointed out the following problems with the current WAP standard:

  1. It’s not a standard. Sites constructed in WAP have to be built in slightly different ways depending on what type of phone needs to display it.

  2. The “walled garden” approach used by most phone companies (only allowing access to a selected group of sites that have made deals with the phone company) restricts access to all but a small subset of the web.
  3. The experience stinks. (These are my words, not his.)

His recommendation? Wait. Wait until the standards get hammered out, and we really know what people want. He’s looking at 2001 (in Europe) or 2002 (in the United States) before the infrastructure’s ready for prime time.

But I think he’s wrong.

OK. Not totally wrong. From a usability standpoint, he’s dead on with most of what’s being offered on the wireless web for the moment, and I also agree (from hard experience) with the difficulty of designing WAP stuff that’s going to work across a wide range of devices. But as far as the reason WHY the wireless web hasn’t really taken off, I believe that the real problem has a lot more to do with content than it does with technology. And a look at Japan’s latest craze I-mode serves as an instructive example.

Today more people in Japan access the Internet via their cell phones than via their PCs. Several different technologies exist, but by far the most successful is a technology called I-mode. Introduced by telecom NTT DoCoMo, I-Mode currently has more than 7 million subscribers and is poised to overtake AOL as the top online portal by 2002. At its peak, DoCoMo was signing up more than 600,000 new subscribers every month and has one of the fastest adoption rates of any new technology in history. Because DoCoMo receives a royalty on every transaction made over the system, it was able to rack up 23 percent more profits in the first year of operation (and is forecasting a jump five times that by 2003).

Why has Japan gone nuts for I-Mode while we’re still limping along with flaccid acceptance in the United States? The answer is content.

Yes, content. Currently there are more than 16,000 sites accessible via I-Mode and more coming online every day. Content ranges anywhere from chat to email to flight booking to stock trading to online dating clubs to downloadable “Hello Kitty” animations that dance when your phone rings. Before taking the system online, DoCoMo spent a good deal of time and effort working with developers to create sites to launch with the new system… an investment that has clearly paid off.

But it’s not just content… it’s cost as well. The basic fee is a mere US$1 per month, with additional transactions and purchases handled on the phone bill. Even with all the opportunities to blow money on the systems, many users spend about US$15 per month or less subscribing to services with low-cost transaction rates of US$0.90 or so.

While U.S. web merchants and pundits have been yammering on for years about the potential for “micropayments” to revolutionize e-commerce, the combination of web access and centralized, secure billing via the phone company is actually making it happen in Japan. Services are charged on an a la carte basis: Receiving five emails may cost US$0.90 while looking up a train schedule might cost US$0.15 or less. Downloading a new background pattern for your phone screen can be had for US$0.90 per month as part of your subscription.

And it’s going to get better: DoCoMo is expected to launch a new system with 144KPS transmission rates in the spring and will have broadband (megabit speeds) by 2003. Not only will the revolution be televised, you’ll be able to watch it on your cell phone if you live in Japan.

When’s it coming to the United States? Unfortunately, unless U.S. cell-phone companies can get their act together in terms of competing standards and short-sighted strategies, not for a while. But we can learn a few lessons from I-mode as we move forward to developing the wireless web in the West:

  1. Content. When it comes to web content, people are going to want to put up with the expense and hassle only if there’s something available that they can’t get with a simple phone call. Not just contentappropriate content.

  2. Cost. Right now, accessing the wireless web is expensive in the United States. People are used to free or super-cheap flat rates for web access at home. Do you really think they’re going to pay connection charges to access the “World Wide Wait” on their cell phones?

  3. Breadth of offerings. News and stock quotes ain’t enough the niches are going to rule.

  4. Connections. In Japan and in Europe, some of the most popular services are those that allow users to send short text messages back and forth to each other. Why not call? Because if you’re in a meeting or just want to stay in touch, a short message is usually better.

  5. Services. People just aren’t going to read the newspaper on their cell phones, and up-to-the-minute sports scores probably aren’t going to make it the killer app. We should be thinking of ways to use the new medium to deliver timely services that are easily accessible through the devices and not try to cram the whole web on a device that was never meant to handle it.

  6. Deal with the payment issue. All the money being made on I-mode is being made because buying stuff is easy and secure. Until things can be made just as easy here, m-commerce just isn’t going to take off into the mainstream.

Many predictions are being made by different research groups to the effect that wireless will replace wired web access in the next few years, predictions that make a lot of sense.

While many of us dinosaurs cut our computer teeth on clunky computers hardwired to the Net, there’s a whole new generation of technology users on the way up who 1) take the web for granted, 2) take wireless connectivity for granted, and 3) don’t get all gaga over new stuff for its own sake but for what it can do. With these kinds of trends, it’s easy to look forward to a day when only old farts use wired desktops and the real action takes place in the palm of your hand. I-mode shows us a glimpse of that wireless future.

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