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Internet out of the box

The truth is that many obstacles need to be overcome if the opportunity in wireless and non-PC Internet access is ever to become reality.

If you believe the research organizations and the popular press, wireless and non-PC Internet access will drive the next big wave of Internet growth.

There are expected to be more than 500 million wireless subscribers worldwide by 2005. According to Ovum research, non-PC devices will account for 40 percent of online time by 2005 vs. 4 percent this year.

Special Report: A tough call For those who haven't been around for a while, beware. This industry, including venture capitalists, investment banks and entrepreneurs, has a tendency to fall in love with the next big thing. Valuations get bid up and expectations go sky high, only to be cast aside nine months down the road when something fails to live up to lofty expectations.

It's easy to understand why people are so excited. Accessing interactive services anytime, anywhere sounds promising. Who wouldn't want to pull up a map on their PalmPilot to avoid getting lost or be notified that there's an accident 15 minutes down the road? Discreetly check email in the middle of a not-so-interesting meeting? Or pay for a car wash by swiping their phone in front of a machine?

The benefits of the convergence of the physical and virtual worlds have barely been explored, but optimists abound. Media commerce, or "m-commerce"--seen as the winning revenue model--is expected to grow to $140 billion worldwide, with Europe and Asia leading the charge.

It's easy to get caught up in the magnitude of the projected market size and audience, but the truth is that many obstacles need to be overcome if the opportunity is ever to become reality. With the rise and fall of business-to-consumer and business-to-business popularity, however, many are starting to question whether the wireless opportunity is more hype than reality.

According to Forrester Research, 82.5 percent of mobile consumers show no interest whatsoever in mobile data services. Are we setting ourselves up for disappointment? While this statistic seems discouraging, it's more likely that it reflects the stage of development of the market. Few consumers have the vision to want what doesn't yet exist. The challenges remain significant, however.

One of the key hurdles is content applicability. Usage rates for the current crop of mobile services are uninspiring to date. Many of the current applications are skinnied-down versions of what we see on the Web today. Just as TV and print content did not port well to the Web, Web content, which was designed for the desktop PC, will not successfully transition to these new gadgets, particularly given the user interface hurdles of today's devices.

The Internet today is largely a text-based medium. Lots of text on a TV screen is a big turnoff to consumers, and lots of text on a PDA or cell phone will not keep people engaged for long, either.

Given the constraints on PDAs and mobile phones for the next several years, communications services are likely to remain the "killer apps" for mobile phones and PDAs. Outside of communications, other applications that are likely to have appeal are those that are location-based, time-sensitive and personalized, and that require only a small amount of information to make a decision.

The content that people want on a portable or handheld device is different from what they want on a desktop computer's 17-inch monitor. Given the current technology and user interfaces, location-based, time-sensitive and personalized content is most effective. Though people will not spend hours surfing the Net from their Palms or mobile phones, they will use them to get critical information such as stock quotes, airline flight status or directions, or to find and make reservations at the nearest Thai restaurant.

The opportunity is meaningful, but it will take time to realize it. Established Web companies, even those that have been highly successful, will not necessarily extend their success to the e-TV and mobile platforms. It is likely that the list of winners on these emerging devices will include brands that are not currently known.