article

Wireless Data Gets Personal

Posted: 12/1999

Wireless Data Gets Personal
New Technologies Make Data Mobile
By James R. Dukart

Smart phones, personal digital assistants and other
Internet devices are boosting the market for wireless data over existing narrowband
networks.

i9c1p53.gif (5833 bytes)FlashPoint Technology’s technology enables wireless users to connect a
digital camera to a cell phone and transmit photos to an Internet-equipped PC, a personal
digital assistant or a similarly equipped cell phone.
Photo courtesy of FlashPoint Technology, San Jose, Calif.

When Rhonda Jobe goes shopping, she brings her favorite shopping companion along with
her in her pocket or purse.

That companion is Jobe’s cell phone. Jobe, vice president of marketing for Alameda,
Calif.-based GeoWorks, has a phone that subscribes to her company’s Mobile Attitude, a
personalized service that sends targeted text messages to the phone alerting her to
special offers, discounts and sales at stores she has told the system she frequents. When
Jobe walks into one of the stores offering the discount, she simply shows the merchant an
authorization code that gives her the offered special.

Mobile Attitude is only one of a number of emerging uses of so-called "smart"
cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) to access wireless data. Another
intriguing one is that being developed by Motorola Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., and FlashPoint
Technology, San Jose, Calif., a wireless imaging solution that will let users connect a
digital camera to a cell phone and beam photos through the air and through telephone
networks to any Internet-connected computer, PDA or adequately equipped cell phone.
FlashPoint executives say the application promises to be a big hit with in-the-field
professionals such as insurance adjusters, journalists, real estate agents and
construction managers, or anyone else who needs the ability to send and receive images
wirelessly.

Both of these applications point to the explosive growth of wireless data–text or
numeric messages, photos, files and limited web browsing–over existing, narrowband
networks. Within the next six to 12 months, expect a plethora of new product and service
offerings from hardware manufacturers, software companies and carriers, all aimed at
transmitting Internet-based data to small, personalized devices that consumers and
business travelers alike are expected to take with them everywhere and have on almost all
the time.

Getting a handle on the future size of this wireless data market is not easy because it
includes so many different types of devices. Suffice it to say, though, that from just
about any perspective the opportunity looks huge. The Washington-based Strategis Group,
for instance, reports that more than 28 million Americans already have access to some type
of mobile phone service, a number it sees exploding to more than 614 million wireless
users worldwide by the year 2002. Currently, Strategis says, the mobile data industry has
more than 2.8 million subscribers, representing more than $860 million in service and
equipment revenues. Narrowband operators, the company points out, are earning all of these
revenues and will continue to serve the bulk of the wireless data market for the next
several years.

By the year 2004, Strategis predicts, mobile data subscribers–including those served
by broadband networks but not fixed wireless data users–will number more than 21 million,
resulting in annual revenues of $3.2 billion for service providers and an additional $2.6
billion in equipment revenues. International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, Mass., reports
similar numbers, predicting that the U.S. remote and mobile worker population is already
more than 35 million and will grow at a 6.7 percent compound annual growth rate over the
next five years. Many of these numbers, moreover, ignore intelligent imaging devices such
as digital cameras, a market FlashPoint says will expand by more than 12 million units by
the year 2001.

Carrier Opportunity

While no one can seriously doubt the scale of the opportunity to participate in the
narrowband wireless data market, some carriers might be hesitant to jump into new and
untested markets. GeoWorks’ Jobe says her company is interested in partnering with
carriers to either cobrand services such as Mobile Attitude or explore other ways to boost
carrier revenues or service offerings through wireless data messages, but has not signed
any concrete agreements yet.

"What is hindering it right now is carriers don’t know what to do with it and
don’t know how to charge for it," Jobe says of narrowband wireless data services.
That, she predicts, will change as more and more devices hit the market, and as consumers
begin to demand personalized data services on their hand-held devices.

"Consumers will begin clamoring for it once they see that there are applications
beyond business applications," Jobe says. Carriers, she predicts, will be able to use
personalized wireless information services such as restaurant recommendations, driving
directions, wireless e-mail, shopping information and localized weather or sports
information to boost customer loyalty.

"We have gotten an excellent response from consumers here in the Bay area,"
Jobe says, adding that the "take rate" on promotions offered over subscribers’
cell phones was around 8.5 percent, more than four times the traditional 1 percent to 2
percent take rate marketers expect from other types of direct marketing.

One carrier that is already in the narrowband wireless data game is RCS Wireless, a
subsidiary of Roseville Communications Co., Roseville, Calif., the 18th largest incumbent
local exchange carrier (ILEC) in the United States. In September, RCS Wireless rolled out
its wireless data offerings to six central California communities, providing 14.4 kilobits
per second (kbps) dial-up connections to the Internet through a mobile phone connected to
a laptop or PC. Monthly data service is charged at $9.95 per month added to one of four
RCS Wireless voice plans, and using a wireless phone as a wireless modem requires a
connection kit that RCS sells for either $29.99 or $69.99, depending on whether the phone
will be attached to a laptop or PC. The company charges the same for voice minutes as it
does for data minutes.

"All of the wireless carriers are cognizant of the fact that the future is in data
rather than voice," says Andy Mosney, manager of marketing and business development
for RCS Wireless.

"Right now we are just offering the ability to use a wireless phone as a
modem," Mosney says. "The applications where you do not use a laptop anymore–we
are sitting back a little and seeing what might come out in the next few months."

One of the things that has already come out is Sprint’s new wireless web offering. On
Sept. 20, Sprint announced the "Grand Opening of the Wireless Internet," as it
called its introduction of new personal communications service (PCS)-based wireless data
services. Sprint’s service offerings give customers one of three options. The first is
wireless web updates from Yahoo!, where customers personalize their Yahoo! home page and
receive messages relating to news, sports, weather, stocks or other requested data twice
per day via Sprint’s Short Messaging Service (SMS). Subscribers also can opt for the
Wireless Web Connection, which is similar to what RCS Wireless offers, a data connection
kit that lets a Sprint PCS phone act as a wireless modem, connecting to a laptop or PC
through dial-up connections at 14.4kbps. Next, there is wireless web browsing, in which
specific Internet-ready phones are used to browse selected websites using built-in
microbrowsers.

Sprint’s wireless data sign-ups start as low as $9.99 per month added to any Sprint PCS
voice plan, and some include batches of free wireless web minutes and/or free SMS-based
updates. "We’re sending the message loud and clear that Sprint PCS is Internet-ready
when you are," says Andy Sukawaty, president of Sprint PCS. Sprint spokesperson Kami
Powers says Sprint has no immediate plans to offer wireless web services for resale.

Omnipoint PCS has wireless data offerings somewhere between RCS Wireless and Sprint.
Chris Resavy, senior director of engineering, operations and facilities for the Danbury,
Conn.-based carrier, says the company’s primary wireless data offering currently revolves
around push technology updates of sports scores, news, weather and stock updates, as well
as use of a wireless phone as a modem to connect to a laptop or PC. At the same time, he
says, the company is looking at several more advanced applications it hopes to begin
offering early next year.

"One of our customers is looking to do wireless data for their service
fleet," Resavy says. "They would be able to pass work orders and location
information back and forth and estimate vehicle arrival times [to] improve customer
service responses." Omnipoint also is working with a manufacturer of cardiograph
machines, he says, working to design systems that will send data wirelessly back to
hospitals from mobile clinics and ambulances. Auto manufacturers are another good market,
he says, many being interested in hands-free car phones that can accept data for driving
directions, community information and emergency location services. For instance, a vehicle
equipped with the proper wireless data device, he says, could be used to schedule regular
vehicle maintenance appointments or locate and place an emergency call whenever an airbag
is deployed.

Carriers’ Helpers

Carriers are not alone in their zeal for promoting wireless data over existing
narrowband networks, nor are they alone in provisioning the services. Software companies
and application providers are rolling out "wireless portals" to help carriers
deliver data to handsets and mobile devices.

One such firm is the eponymous Web2PCS.com, San Jose, Calif. Raza Kamran, vice
president of strategic development and marketing for Web2PCS.com, states flatly that his
company "wants to become the Yahoo! of the wireless Internet," which he says
means positioning his company’s software as the entry point for customer information and
distribution center for data that goes out to subscribers.

Many carriers, Kamran says, are reluctant to devote resources to data services,
preferring to concentrate on growing demand for wireless voice. At the same time,
provision of narrowband wireless data, he says, can be outside the core competency of many
carriers. As such, Web2PCS has set up a carrier alliance program under which it will
provide servers, software and services for carriers wanting to offer wireless data. The
program currently includes more than 35 carriers in North America, Kamran says, and
Web2PCS generates its revenue from advertising and e-commerce initiatives, rather than
charging carriers or customers for the service. "We’ve seen right now that charging
carriers for software is a lengthy process and one we have not seen a lot of success
in," Kamran says. "We have all these great solutions, but as the PCS market is
evolving, carriers have less and less resources to devote to wireless."

Another major provider of carrier-side wireless data services is Phone.com, formerly
known as Unwired Planet. The Redwood City, Calif.-based company has relationships with 42
carriers to provide wireless web access, and is the provider of the microbrowser used in
Sprint’s Wireless Web offerings. The microbrowser is a web browser stripped of some
functions and miniaturized to fit into the display screen of a standard cell phone,
operable using the numeric keypad of the phone. Rowan Benecke, a Phone.com spokesperson,
says the Phone.com microbrowser, currently in its fourth generation, is being licensed by
about 90 percent of worldwide handset makers.

In addition to its microbrowser, Phone.com provides a server suite, software
applications and a software development kit for carriers that want to provide data
services to wireless subscribers. Ben Linder, vice president of marketing for Phone.com,
lists AT&T Corp., Nextel Communications, Inc., McLean, Va., and Bell Atlantic Corp.,
New York, as large carrier clients.

Carriers also will be looking for help from the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)
Forum, a coalition of carriers, handset manufacturers and content providers that is
putting together a protocol intended to underlie all data transmission and reception for
handheld wireless devices. The WAP Forum was founded in June 1997 by Ericsson, Triangle
Park, N.C.; Motorola; Nokia, Irving, Texas; and Phone.com, and currently has more than 90
members, including 90 percent of the global handset makers and carriers with more than 100
million wireless subscribers. The organization says it will design a protocol that can run
over a wide range of network technologies, including global systems for mobile
communication (GSM), personal digital cellular (PDC), cellular digital packet data (CDPD),
code-division multiple access (CDMA), time-division MA (TDMA), personal handyphone (PHS)
and digital European cordless telecommunication (DECT), and also will include future
third-generation standards. The WAP forum is already testing a universal WAP, and expects
to have a fully published standard sometime next year.

What Will Customers Want?

While carriers, analysts and software companies all predict a huge future for
narrowband wireless data, many are unsure just exactly what data services will win
customers’ hearts and minds. Kamran says there still is something of a "learning
curve" for customers regarding wireless data, and many are already showing a
preference for less, rather than more, data on their mobile devices. "Customers don’t
want to be bombarded, they just want the important stuff, key data that would drive them
back to get the full stuff," he says.

Omnipoint’s Resavy says his company’s Wall Street clients "love the stock
stuff," referring to financial information that is beamed to mobile devices. Mike
Moretto, a product manager for FlashPoint, says the use of his company’s new wireless
digital cameras will mushroom as customers discover new uses for photography from the
field.

Andy Mosney of RCS Wireless says no one can predict for certain what shape narrowband
wireless data will take, but an interesting lesson comes from Europe, where wireless data
penetration rates are much higher than they are in the United States.

"The whole issue is really in its infancy, and we are not sure what the market is
going to demand," Mosney says. "In Europe, it seems to be things like checking
e-mail remotely, checking stocks and checking horoscopes. Horoscopes are the third highest
demand for wireless data in Europe."

Phone.com’s Linder says his company’s carrier clients are evenly distributed between
North America, Asia and Europe, and each market appears to have slightly different
preferences for wireless data applications. In Japan, he says, e-mail and games lead the
pack, but wireless horse betting also is very popular. In Europe, e-mail and
communications lead the field, including e-commerce for things such as purchasing train
tickets via phone. The carrier market in the United States, he says, seems to be focused
on electronic customer care, letting subscribers review and pay bills via their wireless
phones.

Another carrier active in wireless data abroad is APEX Voice Communications, a Sherman
Oaks, Calif.-based company that has been providing wireless e-mail services in Argentina,
El Salvador and Guatemala and is rolling out service in Brazil, Columbia, Paraguay,
Uruguay and selected countries in Europe and Asia. Fabio Tylim, who oversees the company’s
Latin American operations, says carriers have been using wireless e-mail as both a
competitive differentiator and as a way to drive greater traffic and increased airtime
charges over their networks. Carriers, he says, will find eager customers in Latin America
and Asia, where PC penetration rates are much lower and buying a handset or mobile device
will be seen as a cheaper, faster way to get connected to the Internet. The biggest
challenge now, he says, is for carriers to make customers aware of the service, best done
through massive marketing campaigns. Ben Levy, APEX president, says the North American
market has yet to embrace wireless e-mail to the degree of markets in Latin America and
Europe, but he expects that gap to close within the next 12 to 24 months.

According to Robert Rosenberg, president of Parsippany, N.J.-based Insight Research
Corp., it could happen sooner than that, if and when mobile devices let him access his key
remote application need–e-mail–as he needs and wants to.

"I am not an early adopter myself," Rosenberg says, "but every time I
get on a plane I am forced to lug along my laptop, and the only reason that is going with
me is so I can answer my mail. I would love to be able to give up the full-featured laptop
and open up just a few applications and be able to reply to 90 percent of my messages with
a universe of about 20 canned responses."

The problem with mobile devices today, Rosenberg says, is that they still force users
to give up some of the basic functionality they have with wired devices. That, he says,
should change with the new wave of devices that manufacturers are putting out, and he is
"extremely bullish" on the prospects for wireless data to mobile devices.

"If you have the application and it is tied easily to a nomadic device with at
least the functionality of the wired device, I would use it tomorrow," Rosenberg
says.

James R. Dukart is a free-lance writer based in Minneapolis. He can be reached at JDukart@aol.com.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The ID is: 68298