Baby Steps for the Mobile Net
By Stephen Baker
If you happened to be switching flights at Chicago's O'Hare Airport a couple of weeks ago, perhaps you noticed an agitated traveler hunched over a mobile phone, counting each click in Finnish. That was Niklas Savander, who heads mobile Internet applications for Nokia's network division. When he hits the road, he likes to see how this mobile Web is developing. This can be a frustrating line of work.
While at O'Hare, Savander decided to hunt for a Chicago hotel on his mobile Web connection. The process required 38 clicks on his phone. Between each one, he had to wait for yet another minipage to load, open, and deploy. Savander knows that Net analysts estimate a mobile Web site loses half its audience with each click. "At the end of 38 clicks, I don't think anybody's there but me," he says.
IN HIS HANDS.
Nearly everyone who has attempted a halfway complicated job on the mobile Web has similar tales of woe. But unlike most of us, Savander is in a position to do something about it. In fact, the fate of the $27 billion company he works for depends in large part on the progress that he and his colleagues make toward creating a mobile cyberspace that hundreds of millions of us will pay for.
I called Savander recently for a story I was writing on Nokia's battle with Microsoft (see BW, 7/09/01, "Clash of the Titans: Microsoft and Nokia"). The idea was that Microsoft, by pushing its software into a new generation of smart phones and mobile networks, was fast becoming Nokia's most fearsome rival. Could Microsoft extend its dominance from the desktop to the handset -- and make off with Nokia's profits in the process? Savander acknowledged that the threat was real, but he predicted the software company would remain a niche player in wireless. The reason? Too many clicks.
In Savander's view, there's a split between Europeans and Americans. Europeans, who were quick to embrace mobile phones but slow to jump on the Web, look at the mobile Internet as an extension of the phone. Americans, including Microsoft, regard mobile phones as a new frontier on the Internet. Generalizing broadly, he says Americans tend to view their e-mail address as their principal link to the modern world, whereas for Europeans and many Asians, it's their cell-phone number.
What he's describing is a divide between data and phones. Loads of companies are on both sides, but it really boils down to Microsoft vs. Nokia.
INTO A TRAP?
The Colossus of Redmond's towering strength is its dominance of desktops and browsers. As the company sees it, the next step is to extend that dominance to the handset. But here Savander sees the software giant falling into a trap. He says the Internet we all know, the one that you're using right now, is a smash hit on the PC but destined to flop on the handset.
Why? The current Web is built for digital hunters. But using the same paths to track down information via the phone is torture because of its small screen and squidgy keyboard. Too many clicks! As a result, he predicts that Microsoft's mobile Web offerings will consist only of the most popular services, especially e-mail. For everything else, users will likely stick to their PCs.
The phone makers, he says, are constructing a different Internet altogether. It's one that focuses on mobility and sends services directly to the phone, with a minimum of clicks. In the mobile universe Savander describes, the network would have a complete profile of him -- the news he wants, the food he likes, his favorite hotel chains -- so that when he stepped off the plane at O'Hare, the phone would automatically offer him a choice of appropriate hotels. One click to reserve.
There's just one big problem with Nokia's vision: It's not happening, at least not yet. Savander and his team have been building applications and selling them to phone companies the world over. Yet very few of those smart services are taking root. Synchronizing services to a few hundred million people on the move is slow, complex work. So, when spiffy services do start popping up, they're likely to be just a tad off target.
Imagine Savander's phone offering him a hotel, say, in Gary, Ind., instead of in Chicago, or addressing him in Danish instead of Finnish. If this happens, users will view messages as so much mobile spam, and that could well bring the wireless Web experiment to a halt.
Oh, it might not be that dire. Messaging will continue to grow, and e-mail too. But for the mobile Web to reach its potential (and pay for itself), both the Web folks and phone people alike have a lot of work to do. All of them would do well to hold back services until they're ready for prime time. That means cut the clicks and cut the spam.
After all, battered investors in the mobile Web already have their cursors on the sell buttons. These days, some of them can even dump stocks by clicking on their mobile phones.
Baker covers technology from the Paris bureau of BusinessWeek
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht