Think kids first in wireless race

A group of wireless industry executives gathered Monday for the Mobile Commerce Conference held here to discuss their vision of a wireless future. While the wireless industry is growing at a solid clip, many of the industry pundits expressed concern over lagging consumer interest with some of wireless technology's most advanced applications.

A number of analysts and industry executives alike admitted that the US missed the early phase of the wireless boat and needs telecommunications carriers and others to retool their marketing approach. More than anything else, the Mobile Commerce group looks to youngsters around the age of 10 to drive future wireless success.

"How do you create access to the pocket change of teenagers?" asked Josh Newman, senior editor of Unstrung.com, an online publication examining the wireless market. "You have to figure a way for a nine year old to save up his allowance and make a purchase."

Newman sees heavy convergence between mobile communications devices and audio/video tools. While many people over the age of thirty might not be interested in having an MP3 player built into their phones, he argued children love these services and will do anything they can to own the latest and greatest device.

Additionally, children growing up in today's digital age tend to care less about security and privacy issues, Newman said. This factor makes them more willing to give new devices a try and to use some of their more controversial location-tracking features.

"Most young people do not care about privacy," he said. "They are not concerned with the government. They want people to know where they are and what they are doing. It's all about getting people to notice you -- to make yourself known."

Several of the event debaters chided the US for missing its wireless target audience, thus far. While wireless-related companies want to market products to large corporations, many believe they might have to wait until today's ten year olds have entered the corporate ranks. The younger generation simply understands and wants wireless applications more.

"IMode is the perfect example of why the barrier to entry might not be the ones we originally identified," said Dale Gonzalez, chief technology officer at Air2Web, referring to the wireless network offered by NTT DoCoMo in Japan. "Japan has a dense population that spends a lot of time on phones and on trains. It is what they like. It fits their lifestyle." Air2Web provides an XML (extensible markup language) gateway for wireless transactions.

Gonzalez, like many others at the event, recounted tales of Japanese children sending literally billions of instant messages back and forth to each other on trains or in school. He sees a number of infrastructure-based and cultural differences in Japan which have led to iMode's tremendous success.

In the US, however, the problem for vendors is convincing consumers that they need a new way to access information. Many companies scramble to deliver location-based services, highly personalised advertisements and more business applications. While many of these services seem appealing, they don't really constitute something a consumer needs and is willing to go out of the way to access.

"The Japanese knew what their people wanted," said Rikki Lee, editorial consultant with Wirelesslee. "NTT DoCoMo knew what their subscribers wanted and knew it very well."

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Ashlee Vance

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