A small but quickly growing number of mobile phone companies is offering Internet access over cell phones, touting the technology as the best way for people to stay connected while on the move.
Yet as far as the Net-savvy surfer is concerned, there still isn't much to look at. The wireless Web is in its early stages, with only some 100 sites offering content that can be viewed on a cell phone's tiny screen.
"The universe for wireless Web content is a pin needle," said David Hayden, senior industry analyst for Mobile Insights, a wireless industry consulting firm. "It's very, very small relative to the Net itself."
Mobile phone carriers see wireless data as the next big market opportunity, however. Industry analysts estimate that by 2002, more than 100 million mobile phones will be able to tap the Net in some fashion. And by 2003, more than 1 billion mobile phones are expected to be in use worldwide. These numbers spell huge revenues for phone companies, if they can successfully get their services to fulfill the demands of Net-hungry consumers.
But developers looking to work on wireless Web content are just beginning to emerge, following larger sites like Yahoo and CNN that led the market with wireless content offerings.
Just today, America Online made its own move toward offering its own content for wireless Web phones. It plans to buy Tegic Communications, a company specializing in text entry for wireless devices.
"It's in a very organic phase right now," said Ben Linder, vice president of marketing for Phone.com, a developer of mobile phone Web browsers and infrastructure.
His company now has 22,000 registered developers creating content or applications for mobile services, he said. "As the phones hit the market, and [subscriber] numbers reach into the six and seven digits, this becomes a very attractive platform."
Sprint PCS has been the most aggressive company with new Web-access services, touting easy access to stock information, sports scores and email in a flashy ad campaign. AT&T has offered a similar but limited version of these services for several years. Many other telecommunications carriers are quickly following suit.
But it may be a bit early in the game to classify such services as a complete wireless Web, some analysts say.
"It's really not a wireless Web as landline users are used to thinking about the Web," said Jane Zweig, executive vice president of Herschel Shosteck Associates, a telecommunications consulting firm. "I think the end-user experience will fall short of expectations."
Part of the trouble is the interface itself. With tiny screens smaller than even a credit card, there is no way a wireless phone--or even the somewhat larger screen on a handheld device like a Palm Pilot--can compete with a 17-inch computer screen. Download speeds for these services are about 14.4 kbps (kilobits per second), or about a quarter of the speed of an average dial-up modem.
Most wireless phones have screens that can show only four or five lines of text at a time. High-end models can handle about 11 lines. This means that Web sites that want to gear their content for mobile phones have to strip out graphics and reconfigure pages for wireless access.
An added roadblock is that there isn't a single official standard with which to create these types of Web pages. Yet most in the industry are coalescing around a technology developed by Phone.com, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola.
Dubbed the Wireless Access Protocol, or WAP, this technology allows a text version of a Web page to be displayed on mobile phone screens. Early in the market's development, Microsoft tried to push the industry in another direction, using instead essentially the same technology that underlies existing Web pages. But in the most recent versions of its wireless browser, Microsoft too has decided to support WAP.
Nevertheless, the difficulty of shrinking Web sites to fit cellular phone screens has kept all but the largest, well-funded sites away. According to Phone.com, only about 100 sites in the United States now support wireless access.
Overseas markets, which generally lead the United States in mobile phone use, are a little ahead in the wireless Web market. Japan has about 400 sites, and Western Europe has more than 300 altogether, Linder said. But these numbers are growing rapidly, he added.
"By the end of 2000 there will be hundreds of thousands of sites," said Mobile Insights's Hayden. "All of the portals have just been waiting for the phones to come on the market."