Panel: Mobile computing has long way to go

There's an undercurrent of frustration at this year's Demomobile trade show, an event designed to highlight innovation in mobile and wireless computing.

"The Internet has transferred power from institutions to individuals," but not when it comes to the mobile Internet, said John Patrick, a founding member of the World Wide Web Consortium and now president of Attitude, a consulting firm.

Earlier, Demomobile producer Chris Shipley sounded some similar frustrations.

"Last year, I predicted we'd enter the 'Age of Device Computing,'" she said. "I was wrong - because I focused (just) on the device. All these devices are amazing, but on their own, they don't deliver value, unless they're connected to another computer or service."

Many of the presenters this year are offering software and hardware for what she termed "service-based computing" - reliable access from a relatively simple device with a simple GUI to powerful, complex applications that proved to be easy to manipulate.

But the comments from Patrick and a panel on "Breakout Applications and Data Services" underscored how much work remains, and even whether such a model is feasible.

For Patrick, the power transfer via the Internet to individuals is the power to click a mouse button to express a preference: for another site, for another product, for specific information. But his comments were almost plaintive, echoing what seems to be an industrywide puzzlement about how wireless Internet and mobility don't seem to be transforming the world at the rate many predicted, or hoped for.

"Only a fraction of things that could be done, are being done," he said. Later, he insisted, "We've moved (to using) handhelds, but we've not adapted to using them." His point was that handheld devices of all kinds are often awkward to use, and the services they offer are cumbersome.

His panelists - including executives from AOL Mobile, Nokia Ventures, and Yahoo - offered at best optimism but little substance. More often, they admitted no one has "figured out" mobility, and that the industry hasn't done a good job serving users.

"People are still waiting for that killer broadband app," said Doug Garland, senior vice president of broadband and mobile at Yahoo.

The focus at Yahoo, he said, is first satisfying the basic connectivity and service needs of its users, such as e-mail and instant messaging. But even at this level, Garland said, "we (the industry) haven't done a good job of that." Once those needs are taken care of, he added, "then you can bring consumers up to really interesting applications."

Patrick argued that the Internet is standards-based, through an open standards-setting process. "That's why it works," he said. The mobile and wireless industry lacks standards, and should be seeking a way to embrace them.

But Garland pointed out that the abundance of device formats, the various operating systems and networks, create a complex world that doesn't lend itself to easy standardization.

Christian Lindholm, director of multimedia applications for Nokia Ventures, argued that such diversity could be a virtue. "We can create specialized clients, designed for sports, or financial and stock information, rather than relying on a general-purpose Web browser (originally created for a PC)."

"The Internet adapts content to the (client) device," Patrick countered. "You're suggesting we adapt the device to the content."

Another panelist said these issues were out of their hands, and by implication out of the hands of users. "The carriers determine (all) this, by their decisions on what devices to offer on their networks," said Bryan Biniak, senior vice president of wireless for American Greetings.

That comment brought a woeful Patrick almost to mourning. "If we have to wait for the carriers to get the Internet, I'm afraid we might not get there."

"Carriers have to evolve," Biniak said firmly. "Today, they're like an NBC television executive who selects which (specific) program will be broadcast on the network. Instead, they need to become like a cable TV provider offering (many programming) services."

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