As an itinerant venture capitalist, Robb Heineman spends 20 days a month away from his office. But staying in touch is no problem: He has found a virtual desktop in his four-ounce Web phone. In one recent week he used this wireless wonder to trade 100 shares of MCI WorldCom, buy a book from Amazon.com, and check flight schedules, sports scores, and weather reports dozens of times. "This is pretty cool," says Heineman of Oak Brook (Ill.)-based Vine Street Partners.
For technology's avant-garde, desktop gear is passe. Those on the cutting edge are sporting Web-cruising devices so slim they slip into a pocket. Today there are some 5 million wireless-Internet subscribers worldwide. In three years, though, that's expected to skyrocket to nearly 330 million, or about 55% of all Net users, predicts researcher International Data Corp. "This is no flash in the pan," says IDC analyst Iain Gillott.
It may be time for companies to start buffing up their presence on the mobile Web. Already, sites such as Yahoo! and Amazon.com have been bookmarked on millions of palm-size Net appliances. But the mobile movement hasn't yet landed on everyone's business plan. That means there's still a huge opportunity for Web-site operators to refashion their content or divine new mobile services and nab that crucial first-mover advantage.
The content that works best on these smaller gadgets isn't the intricate, streaming stuff that delights PC users. Today's handheld devices have teeny screens and poky connection speeds, although both should improve with time. For now, wireless Web pages should be succinct, monochrome, and text-only. "On wireless you have to keep it short and crisp," says Billy E. Stephens, senior director of wireless-data services at Sprint PCS.
Go-go life. What sorts of services sell best across the airwaves? Mohan Vishwanath, vice-president of Yahoo Everywhere, the portal's wireless unit, says personalization, localization, and timeliness are key. In other words, offer instant gratification. Deliver services that fit the go-go lifestyle of the mobile user, like stock trading, or buying a movie ticket from the back of a taxi. In March, Yahoo launched an auction service that lets buyers bid via the phone.
These services must be easy to use, too. The mobile Webhead won't search through multiple sites for a bargain. On a tiny keypad, the fewer taps, the better. That's why Virginia-based SingleShop.com is adapting its one-stop e-shopping software for the wireless Web. The system lets Netizens compare prices from many merchants while staying on one site. That way, shoppers get the convenience of one shopping cart and one checkout--but goodies from different stores. "We'll save you a lot of hassle," says Bill G. Neely, co-founder of SingleShop.
Not everything works well on the wireless Web. As long as the technology hampers pictures, forget clothing and jewelry. Still, opportunity knocks. "We know it will take off in the U.S.," says Ali Hussein, Amazon Anywhere's marketing director. "It's just a matter of time." Why wait? Pick up the phone and surf.
For a review of Yahoo Everywhere go to ebiz.businessweek.com.