Killer Apps For A Wireless World

Want to send your sweetie a box of chocolates? In Helsinki, you can do it from the back of a taxicab. With a push of a few buttons on a mobile phone, you can tap into an Internet site called Zed, zip an electronic order to a local warehouse, and have the chocolates sent to an address anyplace in Finland. Paying for it is a snap: The $3 for the gift is simply added to your next wireless phone bill.

The company behind the buttons? It's Sonera Corp., the leading Finnish wireless carrier. Because of Sonera, which controls over 60% of the national mobile phone market, the wireless Web is becoming an important part of Finnish life. Customers download the latest pop jingles from the Net to use as their mobile phone ring. Executives make airline reservations on Zed. Sonera even developed a mobile match-making service so that customers can use their phones to find mates with similar interests--say, skiing or ABBA. "We try to understand how people live their lives on a day-to-day basis," says Antti Viitanen, who develops products for Zed, Sonera's consumer wireless portal.

The services are bringing in the bacon. Revenues from Zed's mobile commerce and information services are expected to generate $248 million by 2003, up from $126 million in 1999, according to Merrill Lynch. And that's just the start. Sonera is so cutting-edge that it's able to sell its homegrown software and services to other mobile phone companies around the world. Count Powertel Inc. in the U.S. and KPN in the Netherlands among Sonera's software customers. That has helped propel the company's market cap to $27 billion.

Why is little-known Sonera leading the way to the mobile Web? It helps that a world-leading 66% of Finns use mobile phones, vs. 36% in the U.S. More than that, Sonera keeps pushing the envelope. It was, for example, one of the first to let customers pay for a Pepsi by dialing a phone number on a vending machine.

Viitanen gets the ideas for services by distributing cameras across Europe and then asking people to take photos that best describe their daily routines. He analyzes them to better understand his customers. "They're doing an excellent job offering new kinds of applications," says Donna Campbell, director of Ericsson CyberLab NY, a wireless incubator. Those services are beginning to make the wireless Web a pleasure. Kind of like a box of chocolates.

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