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The wireless Web: Hype hurts

And that's why William Crawford says it's time to see a little truth in advertising--or is that an oxymoron?

The wireless sector is besieged by hype, and it is hurting the industry.

My favorite peeve is "the wireless Web." Since one can hyperlink between sites using a mobile browser, the term is technically accurate. But the phrase is also an oxymoron, just like jumbo shrimp, military intelligence, postal service, friendly fire or near-miss experience. 

Sprint PCS is using the wireless Web to tout its browser-based wireless Internet service. Though Sprint claims over 1 million users of its service, continued usage is small, and many customers are disappointed with the experience. (And you can put me in that camp.)

Such industry hype has led people to believe they will have quick mobile access to their favorite Web sites, not to mention coffee offers anytime they get within two blocks of a certain ubiquitous, Seattle-based purveyor of java (coffee, not software).

The problem here is not the accuracy so much as it is the extraordinary gap between expectation and reality, as well as expectations fanned by hypsters hell-bent on creating the next dot-com implosion.

Think over-promise and under-deliver. Relative to the wired Web, the mobile browser experience is an unmitigated letdown. And a letdown is something this nascent industry cannot afford.

Then there is the 3G hype. The pitch is that our tedious wireless browser experience will be transformed once we get high-speed wireless networks. Our friends at Nortel want us to believe we will soon be able to give speeches while being prompted by a live video feed. (Let's all hum along with the Beatles, "Come together right now, over me.")

If the wireless Web is a 7 on the hype scale, this one rates as a 9. The first time I saw the commercial, I thought I was watching "The Jetsons."

So is 3G going to save us? Let's imagine for a second that we have a cell phone with a WAP browser. Hook up a broadband connection to the bottom of the cell phone, and guess what? The surfing experience would still be terrible.

It turns out the network speed is largely irrelevant to the mobile surfing experience. The biggest constraint in mobile-land is the user interface, and that is not likely to improve significantly anytime soon. Devices are getting smaller, not larger, putting pressure on screen size. And in three years, I estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of mobile data users will still enter information using a 10-key pad. Not exactly the wired Web, is it?

New tech, old mistakes
We are making the same mistake as pioneers in television and Web publishing. We are blindly applying the technologies and methods of one medium to another. Mobile computing is not the wired Web, and our best attempts at making it so just won't work.

Can we get value out of the mobile experience today? Yes, but we just can't sell it as the wireless Web.

Mobile applications must be developed specifically for mobility. The goal of mobile computing is to minimize the time to relevant information. In this case, push is better than pull, and client-side applications residing on devices are a necessary evil.

Don't get me wrong. Many wireless data technologies and services give a great user experience and provide valuable and timely information. Having been a BlackBerry user for nearly three years and a Palm user since 1996, I am not negative on the industry. I am simply negative on the hypsters that set the industry back two steps every time we manage a single one forward.

What we need is a little truth in advertising--or is that another oxymoron?