But what’s the story behind the hype? What is all this wireless stuff about anyway? And how is it going to affect you, your life, and your business in the future?
Let’s start at the beginning by defining “wireless.” While that may seem too basic, it’s not. The acronym-laden hodgepodge of devices, standards, services, and technologies isn’t only confusing to the layman, it’s pretty impenetrable to many in the industry, too. So don’t feel bad. Here are the basics.
Wireless voice technology has been around for decades now (think your cellphone), but the industry didn’t really start to capture the tech world’s imagination until wireless data services started showing up in the popular eye about 5 years ago. All of a sudden, normal folks with special cellphones the size of small bricks could receive email, check corporate data, and receive pages.
The technology, though, was really slow and really proprietary. There were few standards, almost no phones with wireless data capability, and no real desire in the marketplace beyond a few forward-thinking delivery companies.
The big change came in the past few years when cellular data capabilities were combined with the web via a technology that basically provided a gateway between the cellular company and the Internet. At the same time, developers at Phone.com (previously Unwiredplanet.com) developed a web browser that worked on cellphones, and an industry was born.
Since these humble beginnings, the wireless data industry has grown by leaps and bounds. And while there have been (and still are) many competing standards, three technologies are currently in the lead: WAP/WML, I-Mode, and PDA.
Currently, most wireless cellphone browsers use a standard called WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and WML (Wireless Markup Language) for accessing the web. Sites constructed in WML (a subset of HTML) can be viewed on the phone as a series of text-based menus or “cards.” Using keys on the cellphone keypad, users navigate the menus, reading data and laboriously entering data using the number keys on the phone. While WAP services are just taking off in the U.S., many European countries have adopted the standard, and wireless web access via WAP has quickly become standard for most European cellphone users.
While WAP/WML seem to have set the standard for now, problems, including security and usability, exist. The WAP phone experience is far from that of surfing the multimedia web, and many users quickly tire of paging through card after three-line card trying to view data. (For more information, check out the WAP Backlash article at www.useit.com/ alertbox/20000709.html).
Bypassing WAP’s security and usability problems, Japan’s I-Mode system has been a runaway success. With over 7 million subscribers and over 17,000 content sites, I-Mode has become the most popular way to access the web for most Japanese.
I-Mode’s popularity is in its content. Not only did Japanese telco NTTDoCoMo sign up thousands of developers to create sites before launching the service, the technology also allows limited multimedia content—simple animations, pictures, and music—to download along with the text. This makes I-Mode a huge hit among Japanese teens and hip 20-somethings. In addition, the service is cheap—a couple of bucks a month—and is always “on,” making it perfect for impulse purchases and person-to-person messages.
PDA devices currently occupy a strange niche in the world of wireless. While few true real-time wireless PDA devices exist (the PalmVII is the only device with wireless networking built in), many PDA users are “going wireless” by buying third-party clip-on wireless modems that allow them to get email or surf the web. In addition, AvantGo (www.avantgo.com) and Vindigo (www.vindago.com), services that allow web content to be downloaded into Palm Pilots, have positioned themselves as “wireless” providers even though they don’t allow users to access the web directly.
What’s coming up in the future? Apparently a lot. Cahners InStat predicts that there will be over 1.3 billion wireless web users in the world by 2004 (www.instat.com/pr/2000/md0003md_pr.htm) and Forrester Research (www.forrester.com/ER/Press/Release/0,1769,369,FF.html) predicts that the growth of the wireless web will mimic that of the wired web, pointing out that the U.S. wireless industry currently signs up one new customer every 1.3 seconds! New technologies are being added all the time, from Bluetooth (a short range networking protocol) to Vortals (voice-activated portals). Just like with the web, it will take a while for the experiments to shake out and clear leaders to emerge. In the meantime, the best thing to do is experiment, keep learning, and keep your eyes open for new opportunities.