Baby Steps
By Carlo Longino, Fri Nov 03 00:00:00 GMT 2000

M-commerce doesn't have to be painful. Starting with well-made, simple mobile services lets businesses test the waters, and acclimates consumers to the new medium.

Yep, I finally did it. I made my first m-commerce transaction. Well, sort of. No money changed hands, but I took advantage of a simple, well-designed and well-exectuted WAP-based system to engage in business. I didn't pay my rent or even order a book, that's too complex. No, I booked movie tickets.

Here in Finland, it can be pretty difficult to go see a movie on the weekend without booking a ticket in advance. Generally, you call the theater and tell them what you want to see and when, and then the person on the other end of the line rattles off the open seats and you pick one. A pretty decent system, at least if you're not the most spontaneous person in the world. But there's one problem for me -- I don't speak Finnish.

Although many Finns speak English, there are certain things they probably don't teach in English-as-a-foreign-language classes, so sometimes language can still be quite a barrier. So of course, given the choice, I'd rather interact with a computer than do the whole "do you speak English ?" thing, or risk ending up with tickets for the latest chick flick rather than the new Guy Ritchie film. (You're probably thinking, "Why don't you just learn Finnish?" Fair point, but give me some time. I've only been here for two and a half months.)

So a friend and I decided to go see a movie Friday night. He tells me that he thinks the theater has a WAP ticketing service, so I thought I'd try it out. After logging on and looking up the word for "ticket" (liput, just in case you ever need to know), we gave it a shot. Not even speaking the language, within a minute or two, we'd punched in what we wanted to see and when, and the service had given us a couple of seats and shown us a seating chart with their location.

But of course, being m-commerce trailblazers, we thought we'd try and throw it for a loop. We decided we wanted some other seats, so we went back a couple screens and tried again. Boom -- the perfect seats, ready to be picked up and paid for after hitting another button and jotting down a confirmation number (it would be great if it would send you an SMS with that number, but there's always version 2). Sure, there's no complex secure server to take my credit card number or anything, but I'd still have to go early to pay for the tickets if I used the traditional phone service, and I did get to see a picture of where I'll be sitting. All in a service so easy to use, I could do all this without knowing the language it was written in.

So what's my point? I'm not really a fan of the whole book-a-movie-in-advance practice, but that's not important. This service just goes to show what can already be done with mobile services. It's certainly nothing too exciting, and fairly redundant, since the phone system is already in place, but it certainly serves as an example of where even the smallest companies can start on m-commerce.

The advantages for the theater are really minimal, other than freeing up the person making reservations on the phone, since their existing payment and fulfillment "infrastructure" (if you can call the spotty kid taking your tickets that) must be used. But this application sets the stage for more advanced and complex services down the line, but more importantly, it lets customers like me get comfortable with the idea of mobile commerce by using a simple, dependable interface

Nothing too important is really on the line here, just a couple of movie tickets that I haven't even paid for. If the system screws up, no big deal. It's cost me nothing. But if it works, it will certainly begin to build my confidence and comfort in m-commerce, just like those first furtive orders out of the Land's End catalog or from Amazon did years ago for mail-order and Web commerce. And that's something that no company with a stake in m-commerce can afford to overlook.

Certainly consumers will be initally skeptical of paying their bills or making big purchases over wireless networks. Only recently have they become comfortable with doing so over the Internet. But the sooner companies begin to let them play a little bit by offering simple, dependable services that do what they advertise, the sooner that comfort level will come.

Now if only they'd do something about the stale popcorn...

Carlo Longino is TheFeature's resident business guru and over-opinionated American. His previous experience includes work for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires and Hoover's Online.