By Ellen Neuborne
Consumer adoption of wireless technology in the U.S. has stalled, but don't say it's the economy's fault. Blame the Internet. I certainly do.
Here's why: Back in the old days, when the Internet was just creeping into consumer consciousness, promises were made. Lots of them. And they sounded great. The Internet was coming, and I would never have to schlep to the grocery store again. I'd never have to set foot in the drugstore, the used-car lot, the swimsuit dressing room. I, the long-suffering consumer, would be saved by this new technology. My shopping life would be transformed, elevated, fixed. Forever.
Yeah, well, a couple of years later, here I am, still devoting half my time to all those rotten shopping chores. Many of the companies that sprang up to serve me are facing liquidation. And while some decent conveniences have been served up via the Internet -- buying books and music comes to mind -- overall, the changes have been pretty small. Certainly, small by comparison to the shopping paradise I was promised.
It's this Internet letdown that has me wary of the next generation of technology. I like a cell phone as much as the next multitasker, but I'm just not ready to accept the whole "this will change your life" scenario. Especially if it's coming from the folks who tell me I should be chatting, messaging, researching, navigating, and shopping via wireless.
And it appears I have plenty of company. Wireless companies are hurting. Nearly 8,000 job cuts were announced by the big ones during the week of Mar. 30. A panel at a recent iWireless World conference bemoaned that the U.S. is lagging behind other countries in adopting wireless technology. And Palm Inc. predicts its performance for the rest of 2001 will be disappointing. "Palm has recently begun to feel the effects of the deteriorating macroeconomic environment," says CEO Carl Yankowski.
I think Palm is feeling more than macro pain. The wireless industry has failed in its early efforts to lure skeptical consumers. Thanks to the Internet, we've come to terms with the idea that just because something is new doesn't mean it's better.
Take wireless advertising. Banana Republic ran a wireless ad campaign in my Manhattan neighborhood this winter. Local phone booths were decked out in catchy posters and wireless technology. Passersby were encouraged to point their Palms at the ads and get the latest info on sales and fashion. I encountered those ads several times during the long, cold, wet, winter, and tried to picture myself standing in the snow to receive a wireless ad. Naaaaaaaah.
So far, wireless shopping has also failed to make its case with the consuming public. Nothing about it really solves the problems already miring online shopping. You use a smaller, more mobile device. But you still encounter all the same hassles -- the shipping charges, the surprise out-of-stock notices. So, you're really just doing the Internet thing, except on a smaller screen. How attractive is that?
Some decent ideas are out there. Starbucks, for example, has teamed up with Microsoft to bring wireless Internet connections to its coffee shops. While sipping your latte, you'll be able to read, via wireless, the latest in entertainment news, shopping info, and local goings-on. This I like. It marries the information benefits of the Internet with the ambiance and caffeine rush of the Starbucks experience. But the smart proposals are few and far between.
It's not that I don't want wireless to work. Truly, it's my fantasy technology. I maintain a writing career while raising two small children. I'm forever rushing all over my neighborhood juggling multiple tasks. The idea that a small device in my hand could buy milk, check in with my editor, and reserve a copy of Gladiator while I stand in the schoolyard waiting for my five-year-old is very, very attractive.
I want wireless, really. But I'm not at all convinced it's ready to meet my needs. I fell hard for the Internet promise, and the disappointment still smarts. If wireless wants to woo me, it better be prepared for a harder sell.
Neuborne writes about Net marketing for BusinessWeek Online