Mobile Media's Finally Making Sense
By Andrea Orr, Wed Jan 09 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Content providers once tried to squeeze anything and everything onto mobile screens. Now, they're refining their approach.

Here's a bit of random trivia that a lot of mobile phone users may already know: What popular toy was invented by a Danish carpenter in 1932? Was it a) Lincoln Logs, b) Slinky, c) Legos or d) Etch-A-Sketch?

If you answered c, Legos you are a winner. Then again, if you bothered to answer at all, you are like thousands of American cellular users who engage in such trivia games while killing time in an airport, waiting for a meeting to start, perhaps even to help stay awake while the meeting is happening.

Learning by doing

More than two years after cell phones and other wireless devices began offering a broad selection of content - from silly games to serious investing information - the content providers pushing all this material say they have a long way to go. Accessing information from cell phones is still too slow most of the time to be convenient, and, maybe because the technology remains a little clunky, consumer demand for a lot of mobile content has been tepid.

Even even the most wired consumers have met some of the services previously considered most likely to succeed on wireless devices, like traffic reports and driving directions, with indifference.

On the other hand, there are companies like Carlsbad, Calif.-based Buzztime Entertainment, which last year began offering trivia games on cell phones and says the service is more successful than it had ever expected. "We're blown away by the number of people who play trivia games from their phones," said Buzztime president Tyrone Lam. Although Lam will not disclose exact numbers of players it has signed up since it inked a partnership with Sprint PCS, he says the percentage of game participation among Sprint customers is already in the double digits.

The year 2001 was certainly a challenging year for the wireless content industry, but as content providers do a reality check, they say the experience of companies like Buzztime suggests there is still a lot of promise. But after initially trying to move anything and everything that was available on the Internet onto tiny cell phone screens, these content providers now are refining their approach.

Success, they believe, will rest in locating a few killer apps, such as trivia games, that engage volumes of customers. They also understand that financial success will require they come up with alternatives to advertising to make money from wireless content. Finally, they are waiting for the widespread adoption of better technologies that will make it faster and easier to access information from a small hand-held device.

"We believe there are a lot of services that are working well on wireless devices, and certainly a lot more services will come," observes a spokesman for Infospace, the wireless services provider. "But in the short term, the biggest challenge is to lower the barrier to existing services."

Get with the times, man

There was a time when WAP-enabled phones providing basic Internet connections were state-of-the art, but that was a fleeting moment. Today content providers are eagerly anticipating broad deployment of GPRS-enabled phones, which can be always connected to the Internet, as well as 2-way SMS, so that consumers can go out and seek information rather than just waiting for pre-ordered alerts to come to them. Until such technologies are deployed en masse, says Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Joe Laszlo, cell phones will be "good for obtaining snippets of information, but not for all of the things the Web is good for."

New Pocket PC machines that combine wireless phones, personal digital assistants and keyboards, are also expected to make wireless content a lot more popular. "There is a lot of rich media content being developed for the Pocket PC," says one of the organizers of the annual Pocket PC Summit, which will convene in Philadelphia in May and is finding that despite the technology slump, attendance is way up from last year. "The Pocket PC has really been a shot in the arm for wireless content. WAP technology is kind of old, and consumers are demanding a better visual and audio experience."

Monetizing these rich audio and visual services may prove the trickiest challenge of all. While the Internet advertising market gasps for life, wireless advertising seems never to have breathed even its first breath. Companies that launched around the expectation that ad dollars would flow to cell phones the way they once flowed to the Internet are now out of business or are fast revamping their strategies. TellMe, for instance, a Silicon Valley company which was one of the first to offer a voice portal in which consumers could get driving directions, sports scores, stock quotes and the like from their cell phone, says it no longer expects to make money from advertising.

Although TellMe has attracted millions of users, it has been unable to get the advertisers to follow. So last year, TellMe dropped most advertisers from its consumer service that is accessed from a toll-free number. It began focusing instead on licensing its technology to corporate and government partners.

Not everybody is abandoning all hopes for wireless advertising. Some argue that successful advertising will come as the technology improves, and content providers can offer more advanced graphics and sound. But for the time being most wireless content providers are going the way of TellMe and pursuing corporate partnerships. The trivia game maker Buzztime, whose services have long been featured in casual restaurants and sports bars, says it believes its wireless service has taken hold because it approached the market so conservatively and relied on a solid partner rather than on the whims of the advertising market.

"When we branched out into the consumer segment, we did it in a pretty conservative way," recalls Lam. "We had three objectives: first, to transfer our games to mobile devices, then to see if consumers liked them, and to see if we could get a major carrier to promote them."

Practice what you preach

Some corporations are doing more than just partnering with wireless content providers: they are building the content themselves. Organizers of this year's Pocket PC Summit say several Fortune 100 companies will display mobile technology they built for their own employees so, for example, sales people can access corporate data from the road. (Meaning literally from the road and not just from a hotel room with a phone line).

Some companies like Qualcomm have even built wireless wide area networks to connect workers all over their corporate campuses. If such business-to-business applications were not the ones to receive the most hype in the earliest days of wireless content, they are fast gaining traction today.

Meanwhile, some of the companies that had once hoped to attract masses of new customers with wireless content are starting to rein in their expectations. "No one is going to buy an airline ticket on American Airlines because they send you an alert on your cell phone when the flight is delayed," says Jupiter's Laszlo. "But for customers who are already loyal to American Airlines, such services may deepen the relationship."

Which is not to say that most companies are discouraged. In fact, new content services are appearing almost daily. Just in time for ski season, one Seattle, Wash. company called Mobliss has unveiled the "MySnowReport," service, through a partnership with Nextel Communications, so that subscribers can obtain free snow reports with updated mountain conditions for over 200 ski and snowboarding resorts in North America.

And, one of the first companies to offer its Web services on wireless devices, says it is happy with the success it has seen to date, and expects to see a lot more adoption as the technology improves. If it had seemed inconvenient to complete a purchase over a device that displayed just three lines of text, Amazon says, consumers have taken to the service. The company has found that many customers even buy from Amazon while they are in a mall, and use their cell phones to conduct a price comparison. When Amazon offers the lower price, they order the item remotely.

Amazon says its wireless service has also become popular among people simply wishing to read product reviews or access some trivia while they are relaxing in a bar or out on a date.

From Silicon Valley, Andrea Orr covers developments in the mobile world for TheFeature. She is also a correspondent for Reuters in the Palo Alto, California, bureau.