Not Yet Perfect

Not Yet Perfect – Technology Information

Betsy Harter

Mark Desautels is the epitome of a wireless data user. Equipped with a BlackBerry pager, an AT&T Wireless PocketNet phone, a Palm V with a Minstrel modem, and a Sierra Wireless AirCard for his laptop, the CTIA Wireless Internet Development Group vice president is bringing data to the top of the organization’s agenda.

Lately, CTIA (www.ctia.org) is banking on wireless data, so much so that it changed its name last October from Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association to Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, following its merger with the Wireless Data Forum. With the name change comes a big challenge: Convincing the cynics that wireless data is not just about the future, but the present as well.

Barriers to Market

Although Desautels is “exceedingly pleased” with the state of wireless data today, he candidly notes that the industry has a long way to go before it sees mass-market acceptance.

Desautels admits that W-Internet today is not without problems.

Take, for instance, the arsenal of wireless data devices that Desautels carries. Although he envisions a day when he might get his list down to three devices, he doubts that he’ll ever get everything he wants into one gadget.

“Jeff Hawkins (Handspring founder) once predicted that people would take along a device for the particular thing they will do that day,” Desautels remembers. “I thought, ‘That sounds like it might work.’ But a phone goes with you all the time, no matter what. However, it’s going to be hard to make the phone a really good e-mail device.”

Therefore, most connected citizens will have at least two devices – one for voice and one for e-mail, he predicts. But it doesn’t stop there. Once networks hit 128kb/s throughout, people will want a device for Web surfing, such as the Compaq iPAQ.

“So now you are up to three devices, and I haven’t yet figured out how to collapse those,” he says. “So like Jeff Hawkins says, you will not carry three all the time, but you will have all three.”

Other big challenges for wireless data are pricing, customer service and simplicity of use. Desautels suggests studying the wired Internet for direction.

“In the wired Internet, there’s very little inclination to pay for content,” he says. “Providing a similar experience, whether it’s a flat rate that allows people to use what they need fairly unconsciously or some other way of putting customers at ease with how they consume data will be important to the rate of adoption of services.”

Customer service also is essential to wireless data uptake, he continues. Customers need to know who to turn to when a transaction doesn’t go through. Loss of data or the inability to access an app or a service will require significant support. A quick response, either from the carrier or from the merchant partner, will be essential. Today, there’s some question about which customer-service models will be adopted. Therefore, carriers, ASPs and retailers must collaborate to answer these questions.

“If carriers suggest that they’re going to own the customer, then the carriers particularly will have to be prepared to support them,” Desautels says. “Similarly, their partners need to be assured that customers who have trouble using their products and services have a means of support.”

Desautels predicts that an out-of-the-box-level experience will encourage people to use wireless data more readily. He points to AOL’s success in the wired Internet space, citing the company’s “foolproof navigation” as a factor in increased Internet and e-commerce use.

A better user interface — including voice-recognition and clear graphics — will increase user acceptance of wireless data, he says.

Advocates have their favorite examples of how customers will use the wireless Internet. No wireless show is complete these days without someone mentioning that customers will be able to locate the nearest Chinese restaurant, have coupons sent to their wireless devices as they walk by Starbucks, or use virtual wallets to pay for drinks from vending machines. Although some of these scenarios have taken place in Europe and Japan, the United States still has yet to see actual implementations. Desautels explains that because most of these examples require location technology, the widespread availability of these services in the United States still is at least a year away.

“I don’t want expectations to jump too far ahead of technology here, but with more widespread packet-data services in the next 12 months — GPRS and CDMA — you will see some real phenomenal uptake,” he says. “Enterprises will declare interest in implementing wireless data solutions as you see the throughput rates range upward of 56kb/s. When you have better-than-dialup speed in a mobile device, people will say, ‘Heck, why not do this on my laptop, phone or PDA?’ in greater numbers.”

Although wireless data is not yet perfect, Desautels points out that a core set of apps already are growing in acceptance and use. On the enterprise side, simple and straightforward apps, particularly e-mail, are drawing more users every day.

“Those who use wireless e-mail come very quickly to depend on it and love it, and for the most part they find it exceedingly helpful to be able to do e-mail in near-real time, rather than having to do batch work late at night after they finally return home or to their hotel rooms,” Desautels says.

In fact, he uses e-mail more than any other wireless data app, followed by directory information, access to PIM information, and news services.

Other bedrock wireless data apps that have proved ROI include: dispatch, fleet management, asset tracking, alarm and meter reading, and data transmission. Desautels also predicts that apps based on database information — for instance, the ability of police officers to look up offenders’ driving records — will thrive. These apps can be expanded into other government uses, such as for property assessment or building inspection work.

On the consumer side, Desautels notes a growing interest in entertainment information and services, including the ability to download MP3-format songs, buy concert tickets or read entertainment news.

“A lot of segments of the entertainment industry are looking at just how they can get products and services to wireless devices in a way that can drive new revenue streams,” he says. “I don’t know that all those are in place, but I think that entertainment on wireless devices will be an important hot area of applications in the future.”

Desautels says that although enterprise products and services will take the wireless data marketplace to the next level, the consumer market will take off once the industry learns to provide lots of information quickly to users on their phones.

“Big old hand-helds are coming down in price, and I can see a knock-off of the Blackberry with the capability for SMS types of applications getting in the hands of teens, and that would be a runaway hit,” he says.

Out in Front

As CTIA concentrates less on voice and more on W-Internet, it also will address the political platforms that come with it. The organization is working to formulate positions on a list of issues, starting with privacy and spectrum management.

The wireless industry has been blamed in the news for causing everything from car accidents to cancer. There is no doubt that wireless will end up on Dateline again as consumer advocates put fear into the hearts and minds of consumers that wireless location technology will strip them of their privacy.

“It will be up to the industry to be defining and policing itself and being out front with solutions so that customers can feel that at least the industry is aware of what those concerns will be,” Desautels says. “This area needs to be addressed even before services begin to proliferate so that consumers can be assured that what they demand as far as privacy protection is in place when they are ready to take up services.”

Desautels added that the lack of a spectrum-management policy, particularly with regard to 3G levels of service, certainly could hinder the industry’s advancement.

“As far as spectrum management is concerned, these applications, just as with the wired Web, are driving the need for bandwidth, and so will the wireless Web drive the need for bandwidth in the wireless environment,” he says. “That means spectrum.”

In order to address both political issues and barriers to market, the Wireless Internet Development Group wants to open up a dialogue with other industry organizations. CTIA’s goal is not to become a technology-solutions organization; however, it desires to work with standards and technology-oriented organizations to help build industrywide consensus.

Standards are one issue, which the industry is divided. Desautels says CTIA is technology-neutral and roots for all technologies that help move the market. Although WAP is the only readily available wireless data standard in the United States, other technologies could spur competition.

“Internationally, i-mode has been well-received, and to the extent that there is more than one way to do this, I am not sure that is bad for the marketplace or for competition,” he says. “Even if it is not exactly the same platform, multiple technologies will help push the market no matter what. I think they are both (WAP and i-mode) very useful.”

Betsy Harter (betsyharter@aol.com) is a freelance writer based in Athens, GA.

CTIA Addresses Privacy

In November, CTIA submitted location-based services privacy principles to the FCC in an effort to set the industry standard for consumer privacy. The guidelines, if adopted, affect both wireless carriers and non-carriers that provide location information. The filing described the four principles as follows: Require wireless location providers (both carriers and non-carriers) to inform each customer about the collection and use of location information; provide the customer with a meaningful opportunity to consent to the collection of location information before the information is used; ensure the security and integrity of any data collected and permit the customer reasonable access to it to ensure its accuracy; and provide uniform rules and privacy expectations so consumers are not confused as they roam or use different location technologies.

Data’s Slow Start

Some statistics regarding perceptions around wireless data have not been pretty. According to an August 2000 report from Arthur Andersen’s Technology, Media and Communications group, although 78% of people regard wireless as critical or very critical to their business, the market for mobile data apps is still in the early stages of development. And, although almost three-quarters of business users are confident in wireless data’s potential to brig internal improvements, only a third believe that wireless data could help take new products and services, to customers.

And according to survey results released last fall by Telephia, only 9% of participants who chose their carrier based on added features or services say W-Internet access spurred their decisions, and only 1% cited on-screen information with news as a deciding factor.

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