Content is clearly an issue, but might it not also be possible that the Internet is simply not as potentially mobile as people had first hoped?
To date, end-users have been presented with ingenious wireless technology, and even some dazzling applications, without yet being universally convinced of the convenience or overall user-friendliness of what is available. Meanwhile, operators have been accused of putting the brakes on the mobile Internet industry, holding back its evolution as a popular content provider, by failing to clarify revenue policies - that was the view of 90 per cent of respondents in July 2001 surveys from WAP Wednesday and Booz Allen & Hamilton.
"Two major problems have impeded the mass adoption of the mobile Internet, and I strongly believe that lack of content is a huge one of those, with device size and usability constraints being the other," says Steve Lewis, Vice President, Marketing of mobile software developer, Intava Corporation, based in Bellevue, Washington. Intava is trying to rectify the situation by a kind of 'wireless democratization', paying as much attention to the requirements of individuals as to bigger corporations and organizations.
"Although hardware will most certainly be improved to become more and more useful over time by the manufacturers, the problem of mobile content being available is in the hands of everyone with a current Internet presence," Lewis expands.
"Properly formatted and intelligently designed mobile applications can be developed today. Intava believes the 'killer application' that will make the mobile Internet reach mainstream is content ubiquity and that customers expect to be able to access Internet content whether at home, work or on the go."
User friendliness will increase
Lewis predicts that, before too long, all Web sites and Internet applications will be designed to support wireless devices from the outset with the same kind of user consideration that backs up Web browsers such as Microsoft IE and Netscape. More substantial and widespread use of wireless services will follow, and so will the demand for and supply of content.
The anticipated breakthrough for the mobile Internet, thinks Lewis, may be assisted by the lessons of European SMS and Japanese i-mode experiences. "We believe that although content development for the wireless Internet in the US has been slow in developing, that 2002 will be the year all major content owners will ask themselves what their mobile strategy should be," he says. "By the year 2003, Web sites and Internet applications will be designed from the beginning to be accessible by all the major mobile devices. New devices coming onto the market such as the new Palm M series, the PocketPC platform and even better mobile phones are converting new users to the wireless Internet every day. Fortunately the rest of the world can now learn from the successes of SMS in Europe and i-mode in Japan when they try it for the first time."
A regional factor can certainly be observed in the progress of wireless Internet content thus far. The DoCoMo i-mode service offered by NTT in Japan, for instance, has attracted 25 million subscribers, and the need for a basic knowledge of HTML codes has not prevented over 40,000 developers setting up their own independent sites - in addition to the 1,500 "official" sites.
Intava is confident that the "little guys" will provide the engine for wireless Internet content development on a wider scale. As Lewis points out, the Internet's trail was blazed initially by small companies and organisations - as well as individuals, publishing sites and making their content globally available. "In fact, some of the largest companies in the world have had a Web site for only a few years," says Lewis.
There may be a lesson here for those who are still struggling to popularize their wireless content and who are concerned about the sluggish growth of their wireless services. "The WWW model clearly proved to be wildly popular and spawned a huge technological and economic boom that is still being felt many years later," Lewis says. "In the US particularly, mobile content has mostly been made available by very large companies, due to the difficulty of the development effort and necessary carrier relationships in order to make it widely available. This is the opposite of how the Internet was created before - and may not be the best way to popularize mobile content. Customers want content available to them that is most compelling to their personal interests."
The wireless Internet is an uncharted territory for a global population that has done its fair share of technological exploration in the last decade or so. Perhaps it should not be surprising that, regardless of the quality of content, there is significant public resistance to yet another loudly touted technological medium. "A learning curve must be overcome - and that is typically best done performing a task that is uniquely useful to the individual," Lewis says.
He identifies entertainment sites as an example of the potential for the "entirely new options available on the wireless Internet", adding that "Europe has proven that there is a great demand for this kind of content, particularly among the young". And he re-emphasises that another key factor which will give a powerful boost to the technology is the simple fact of its ubiquity. In other words, once people realise that their favourite web sites are available to them wherever they happen to be, they will eventually be won over by what the wireless Internet has to offer.
For its own part, Intava has launched its first product, Intava Gravity, promoted as "a comprehensive graphical development environment that allows for the rapid creation of web applications". It's based on an easily navigated window that makes it possible to design and build a wireless Internet application accessible through various devices. So as well as providing an approachable site-design system, Gravity may also go some way to standardising the confusing array of wireless media available.
"We started from day one to create the product that a typical Web developer would want to use and cut through the hype and confusion in the process. Allowing a Web developer to easily create and test a single application that can be used across a wide variety of devices and standards will speed the global proliferation of the wireless Internet."
Robust and affordable
The aim is establish Gravity as a tool which is as widely familiar to web designers as the Dreamweaver program, for example. "Allowing a developer to more easily extend their current Web content to the mobile Internet is an area of great focus to us," says Lewis. But if Intava Gravity is such a miracle vehicle in which to negotiate the wireless highway, why has no one else caught on? After all, why should designing and compiling content for a wireless site not be as simple as the same processes are for a "traditional" site?
Lewis answers: "Although there are several players in the wireless space selling software that allows the creation of mobile content, for the most part their approach has been based on hard to use technology and is cost prohibitive for the mainstream. We feel that the real war will be won at the Web developer level and in providing the tool that most efficiently allows them to create mobile versions of their existing applications. This audience requires an easy to use, yet powerful tool that cuts through the hype of wireless and is at a price point that makes sense to them."
Tim Bird is an English journalist who has been living in Finland since 1982. He has learned to like his mobile phone, but likes to think that he can resist becoming a slave to it.