Wireless Plaything

For now, on-the-run access to the Net means nothing important to anybody

Beware of smart guys bearing predictions, even (maybe especially) when it comes to propositions as can't-miss as the wireless Web, current darling of smart guys everywhere. MicroStrategy Inc. CEO Michael J. Saylor came by Business Week a few months back to explain how his company's wireless information and e-commerce portal Strategy.com could bring in $10 billion in annual revenue by 2010, justifying a market cap that briefly flirted with $30 billion. Saylor had a three-step guide on a flip chart and everything(!). By 2010, he said, U.S. consumer spending will be $11 trillion annually. Assume wireless e-commerce claims one-third of that. Then assume 25% of those transactions happen via Strategy.com. Then assume MicroStrategy claims a 1.1% commission. Voila: $10 billion. Pay the man. And the market did, for a while anyway. (Now, after some unpleasantness with its accounting, MicroStrategy is worth $2.6 billion.)

Saylor's argument had a certain brassy insouciance, but it lacked much of anything a fallen lawyer such as me would think of as evidence. And the case for wireless Web domination, at least on the scale and speed predicted by the most bullish experts, weakens further when you look at what Strategy.com and wireless portals at Microsoft Network and Yahoo! actually do in 2000, not 2010.

Info to go. These sites are in a primitive stage, as even their promoters concede. They offer basic news, weather, sports, and financial information (plus, at Yahoo and Microsoft, those all-important horoscopes) that Web surfers, or even TV watchers, can get for free throughout their daily lives. The sites are free, but to use them fully you have to have a wireless Internet access service. That means paying for a Web-enabled cell phone or handheld computing appliance like a Palm. How much does that cost? OmniSky Corp. charges $39.95 a month for access. My cellular provider quoted me $250 to $800-plus for a Web phone. The advantage of wireless is that information updates are pushed to the device of your choice so information can find you wherever you are.

When it comes to offering up the basics, MicroStrategy seems to do the best job. Its financial information goes beyond quotes, including daily reports on best- and worst-performing tech stocks and charts of tech stocks with low price-earnings ratios. Strategy.com will deliver the information not just to your cell or pager but also to your desktop PC or your voice mail. Yahoo Mobile alerts can only be sent to mobile devices, while Microsoft will alert your PC but lacks the voice mail option. Strategy.com also has specific forecasts for beach and boating weather, a nifty way to tailor an otherwise commoditized service. In all, Strategy.com is the most flexible of the three--which is the point of Web Anywhere.

But neither Strategy.com nor the others have well-chosen information tailored to what people actually do when they're on the run. What should they focus on? Give me information I actually might consider when dashing about--and the ability to do something about it. For example, I'll buy movie tickets wirelessly on Friday nights to beat lines. Give me flowers, since I've been known to put off the anniversary until pretty late in the fourth quarter. Let me make last-minute travel arrangements, since business travelers' itineraries change without notice. And tip me off to restaurants and entertainment possibilities because I make those decisions on the fly. And lose (or at least deemphasize) the stock data: Anyone still trying to day-trade is beyond stubborn.

For now, though, the pickings are pretty slim here. Granted, there are aggregated wireless-Web services out there that do a better job than MSN, Yahoo, and Strategy.com. Palm's Web service, for example, delivers some restaurant information and lets you trade stocks. But these three sites from acknowledged market leaders offer little when it comes to making purchases. All three offer varying amounts of financial data, but none of them lets you trade wirelessly (Fidelity Investments' online site does, to name just one example, and it's available through Palm's service). Microsoft lets you check out travel options and itineraries, but you can't make reservations.

These sites are no snap to use, either. Getting news alerts on tiny screens is an exercise in deciphering haiku. My personal favorite was Microsoft's "Beware the Wireless Web," which nipped "Drivers Urged to Concentrate on Road." The drive for brevity gets in the way of saying much. It's not worth stopping your day to read.

Portal lite. If they're going to succeed, the sites have to figure out what a wireless Web does that the regular Web can't do as well. Saylor sketches the long-term vision as well as anyone: Sites that know so much about you, because you have bought stuff from your preferred wireless portal, that a Strategy or Yahoo can drop a note to your pager when your butcher puts pork chops (your favorite!) on sale. And you'll go buy them because the site will know enough to drop you that note close to dinner time or, better, because the technology will figure out where you are when you happen to be near the butcher shop. What's available now at these very similar sites is nothing close to that. Instead, it's sort of Portal Lite--very lite. They're first rolling out what's easy, not what's smart.

Certainly, Nasdaq's shakeout should make clear that the way to jump-start the wireless Web isn't by flogging stock market data, as all three of these sites do. Quick-swing momentum trading is so 20th century. Most people don't make investment decisions on the spur of the moment and shouldn't. For them, the primary service these sites provide is basically useless.

Will the wireless Web be huge? Perhaps. First, you have to have the right offerings--and define huge. It can be a substantial business and still be well short of commanding a third of the consumer economy. That's an inane number, anyway: Consider how much of the average family's consumption dollar goes to the mortgage, the car, the utilities, health care, insurance, and so on. These are all deals you would almost never close while you're on the run--the only place where the wireless Web has advantages that offset the fact that it's clunky to use. Think that through, and you'll get a more realistic sense of what wireless commerce will be. These sites, like the wireless Web itself, may become a force. For now, they're toys.

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