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Mobile Internet: a story of stagnation

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July 06, 2005

Mobile Internet: a story of stagnation

Stephen Baker

Someday the mobile Internet will be huge. No kidding. But the numbers coming out are relentlessly grim. Since January, according to M:Metrics, Inc. of Seattle, the number of Americans using a mobile browser for news and other information appears to be falling.

The numbers:

January -- 22,052,550 0

February-- 22,628,052 2.6%

March -- 21,533,717 -4.8%

April -- 22,109,802 2.7%

May -- 21,641,574 -2.1%

What can we gather from this? The mobile industry, which has been breathlessly awaiting revenue growth from mobile data, has utterly failed to provide Internet handsets and services worth our time and money. Significantly, the one area of growth--wireless email--developed largely on services and handsets that came from outside the phone industry, from Research in Motion's Blackberrys and PalmOne's Treo.

What does the phone industry's failure mean? Perhaps it spells an opportunity for outsiders, like the Sky Dayton-headed joint venture SK-Earthlink. Somebody is going to figure out the wireless Internet. Given the phone industry's record over the past six years, I'd bet on outsiders.

04:08 PM


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Tracked on July 12, 2005 02:57 PM

It depends on what you call "mobile internet". If you mean the use of a browser on the phone, then these numbers shouldn't surprise anyone who has tried to use mobile internet service from a cellphone. The content is limited and the user interface is terrible, even for someone (like me) who is willing to invest time to come up the learning curve. I tried it for a few months recently with my LG phone and found it to be close to worthless.

However, if you include the mailing of photos and mobile commerce types of applications in your definition of "mobile internet", then I believe there is a future. I think the inherent interface limitations (eg. screen size, keypad) might be overcome with better design. What do I value when I'm mobile? Weather where I am, real time traffic reports (text, please) and the ability to adjust the font size on my screen so I can read them without reading glasses!

Posted by: Martin at July 7, 2005 10:02 AM

Good points Martin. I certainly do believe that mobile Internet has a big future. I agree that the browser might not be the right tool for it. One point that you notice is that a lot of the most popular content served across the mobile Net is created by users: short messages, photos, even some of the ringtones.

Posted by: steve baker at July 7, 2005 10:45 AM

Great article and very timely. Thank you!

If you think about it, mobile "browsing" is an obvious non-starter. Being mobile is absolutely the wrong situtation for "browsing" or any kind of navigating. On a mobile device you want just a few choices presented at any given time. You want your task handed to you in a well-defined order -- much like an MS Windows wizard. You want to be led through the task with just a few choices presented in context. There is more on this topic at my blog:

The "wireless internet" will take off when there are applications and user interface models designed for small devices used by people on the go. Attempts to copy Microsoft Windows desktops and desktop Internet are doomed to failure because they are the wrong model force-fit from a previous generation of computing.

In the early 1990s IBM invested heavily in PC software that created visual interfaces by "screen-scraping" existing mainframe software -- they even mandated this as the PROPER way to build distributed applications. The success of Microsoft Windows and the Internet showed how short sighted this approach was. The mobile industry's current focus on miniature web screens and miniature desktops with application icons is similarly short sighted.

Posted by: Jeff Bonar at July 10, 2005 06:19 PM

It's all about the separation of content from structure and interface. As soon as we are using an interface and navigation structure built in a client on the phone, which only connects to the internet when we need to get dynamic content, the mobile internet will be the place to be. RSS is a typical example, but there's way further to go in terms of user interface possibilities - think about the neat interfaces on Java games in your phone...

Posted by: auracaria at July 28, 2005 01:21 PM

I have used the wireless internet on my handset before and found that it was entirely useless. I remember once I was looking up concert information on a really slow computer so I tried to do it with my cell phone instead. I was able to find the site, after numerous failures, that had stuff about concerts, but the concert information was so basic it didn't even include the starting time, which was all I was looking for.

I don't understand why you would provide a service that is firstly so expensive (I get charged by the kilobyte), secondly so unreliable and slow (can't even use it unless you are outside and standing next to a tower most of the time), and so brief that it doesn't even have the vital details of the things you provide "information" to.

The user interfaces are so slow moving that it's no wonder it hasn't taken off, and all the browsers are total junk. For instance, how hard would it be to include a "on failure, retry without prompt" feature, so I don't have to hear time and time again how the worthless network timed out. They need to re-think the wireless internet on phones.

Posted by: Dan Smith at December 20, 2005 03:22 PM

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