On one hand, mobile technologies have made lives easier and safer by helping people keep in touch constantly through any number of wireless devices, many of which are accessible even to those of limited means. On the other hand, the power to reach any person or piece of data with a few keystrokes has created expectations of immediacy and accessibility that are unprecedented in human history.
The question for companies selling wireless products and services is how to create benefits without overwhelming consumers and workers. The goal, after all, should be to make wireless products indispensable while respecting people’s desires, needs, and privacy. It won’t be easy.
Changing technologies, changing lifestyles…
New technologies and services are transforming the wireless industry from a purveyor of mobile telephony to the pipeline of mobile data retrieval and transmission services. It’s an important distinction. A portable telephone, for example, carries a different connotation than a portable wireless computer. Over the next couple of years, such distinctions will continue to blur considerably.
Take Harvey Jacobs, a 42-year-old Washington, D.C. lawyer who owns a “smartphone” combining Palm Computing’s operating system with standard voice telephony and Internet access. He bought it the first day it was available last year and admits it’s a “big, geeky thing” that looks retro compared to modern clamshell-style wireless phones (leading to occasional ridicule from colleagues).
But Jacobs says he couldn’t live without it. “I go to the beach on the weekends, and it’s as if I’ve leap-frogged over the laptop. I can get documents emailed to me. I can even be out on the highway and hit a client’s Web site from my phone.” Jacobs says he has gotten so used to being constantly connected that it actually stresses him out when it appears he has nothing to check. “When I don’t get the icons that tell me I have messages, I get incensed,” he jokes. “Surely, somebody must want to talk to me.” He says such tragedies usually occur when he’s traveling, and the roaming agreement doesn’t include email or voice mail connectivity.
Of course, Jacobs is an early adopter. He is willing to endure a bulky device in return for more functionality and actually loves staying in constant touch with the office and clients (he bills by the hour, after all). The question is whether wireless vendors can count on such enthusiasm from consumers at large, especially as the industry tries to add new revenue-generating services such as mobile e-commerce (m-commerce), wireless advertising, and in a couple of years, location-based services in which consumers are tracked via global positioning satellite (GPS) chips embedded in devices.
But for the better?
But these wonderful services raise big questions. While many consumers and business people might enjoy such constant connectivity, others may view it as intrusive. How many people really want a company tracking their every move with GPS satellites? And what about the old days when someone could escape the stress of his or her office for a long lunch hour or an offsite "meeting." It used to be that clients and colleagues could wait for the person to get back to the office. Not anymore.
With pagers, smartphones, and wireless PDAs now expected to be constantly charged and ready to communicate, the idea that a person could be "out of the office" and unreachable is far less credible. The old assumption was that an unreturned email or phone call could mean the individual had been unable to access them; now, it's increasingly taken as an insult.
But in business, competition drives behavior, and new products allow executives to stay constantly connected to the office - whether they like it or not. For example, a salesperson with a string of meetings on the road may require a visit to the office first thing in the morning to gather data on the various clients on the day's docket.
Oakland, Calif.-based nSeconds just launched a product that allows instant aggregation of any relevant customer data from a corporate network to a mobile device. As for visiting the office in the morning, "that whole step has been taken out," says Jon Ciampi, nSeconds' Chief Executive Officer and co-founder. "They can work more accounts and do more deals. That's a humongous savings." He says early beta customers have even been using the mobile software to access data while they're sitting in front of their office computers. "It's actually easier to use than a desktop," he contends.
So in this case, it can create a competitive advantage and save time, but where does it end? Wireless microchips in the brain?
Annoying or beneficial?
While executives anxious for a competitive edge can be an easy sell on wireless connectivity products, consumers are a more difficult and diverse bunch. The question is not whether the concept of wireless advertising and commerce is an intriguing prospect for marketers: It is. The problem is that such services are often derided by consumers as unappealing at best and intrusive at worst.
Of course, marketers have always been able to bribe consumers to accept advertising with free offers and discounts. But in the mobile environment, it’s utterly unclear how these ads and product offers will be presented. Is it realistic to expect consumers to accept, much less pay attention, to an ad popping on their screen as they answer the phone?
It may depend on the ad. “If I’m about to get on the phone at the airport and you tell me that I’m going to get an upgrade so I don’t have to wait in line at the counter, some people will see that as annoying but others will see it as beneficial,” says Barry Peters, director of emerging media at Lot21, an online ad agency.
But how about a five-second marketing message before they can begin an Internet session? Annoying or beneficial? Marketers don’t even like to talk about the possible repercussions of sending commercial email into mobile in-boxes (unless such email was “opt-in” and therefore okayed by consumers in advance).
Some Internet insiders suggest that a key way to acclimate consumers to wireless services is to create familiar, even fun, services. Launch.com, an online music community, has already started tapping into proven consumer desires with its “Launchcast” service to create customized playlists to stream audio—almost a customized radio station for each consumer.
Launch.com CEO Dave Goldberg says the next step is to extend the product to wireless devices so that consumers can listen to customized “radio” through wireless devices or even through components installed in their vehicles. And because consumers are already used to analog radio in its current form (commercials and all), they’ll be more willing to accept advertising-supported, streaming audio services that actually customize music (and target ads) to their specific tastes.
“As soon as the applications are there, people’s perceptions are going to change,” he says. “Wireless companies understand that there have to be things other than work applications in these devices to drive adoption.” Of course, bandwidth constraints still make wireless streaming difficult, and mobile broadband wireless “3-G” networks are still a few years away from reality. Still, Goldberg says short-term fixes, such as building buffering software into wireless devices, should help overcome some of those constraints until wireless networks catch up.
In the end, it may be some combination of entertainment and utility that creates the demand necessary to make constant connectivity a widespread desire. Already, more and more consumers and businesses are embracing wireless mobility. It’s only a matter of time before everything from the car to the palmtop computer to the refrigerator sports a wireless connection. “All they have to do now is figure out solar-powered cell phones,” jokes Harvey Jacobs. The challenge for wireless companies and vendors is making such ideas more beneficial than overwhelming.
Michael Grebb has previously written for The Industry Standard, Business 2.0, and eCompany. From Washington DC, he covers the impact of mobile technology on modern society.