Mobile Internet: getting it just right

Deciding when to move on a new technology requires an IT user to play Goldilocks to technology's three bears.

To go too soon with a new technology means that a high price will be paid for being a pioneer, which may be hard to recoup. To go too late means that the competition is there before you - another expensive mistake. Like Goldilocks, IT users want things just right.

And that means working with a planning horizon three years out. It takes that long to develop the skills sets needed for new technologies, according to management consultant Pricewaterhouse"Coopers.

While it may be interesting to consider 20-year IT horizons, it's not very valuable tactically, says PWC, which believes three years is the optimal planning cycle for IT. According to PWC, Goldilocks ought now to be starting to psyche herself up for the era of mobile Internet.

Each year the firm releases its technology report, this year a 925-page behemoth with a cover price of $US450. The report focuses on the promise of mobile Internet, canvassing along the way many of the perils which will have to be overcome before the wireless Web becomes mainstream.

Fred Balboni, PWC's Asia Pacific lead partner for IT/systems integration, says that business now knows that using the Internet as another channel in a multi-channel delivery strategy is smart. He believes that the next channel to be added will be mobile Internet.

"This is not a replacement for Explorer, and a PC and a modem, but it is another channel," he says, which will be used by corporations to drive costs down further while building customer loyalty.

First, of course, the supporting infrastructure has to be in place. David King, a director of PWC's technology centre, which pens the report each year, believes that network speeds which will support some early mobile applications will arrive quickly. Once high kilobit speeds and low latencies are achieved on the mobile networks, he believes mobile Internet applications will start to develop, and there won't be a need to wait for third-generation wireless networks. Although 3G promises increased bandwidth, King believes that initially it will be milked for its higher capacity, funnelling a multitude of simple mobile applications rather than a few multimedia-rich applications.

And that is the real key to Goldilocks getting it right - picking the killer application. For PCs it was the arrival of word processing and spreadsheets, for the Internet it was e-mail. Mobile Internet needs a similarly potent killer application.

What happens to a technology without a killer application is WAP. Wireless Application Protocol works, it has been spruiked fiercely by manufacturers, but users have few compelling reasons to use it, and applications which are in use remain expensive.

Clearly, for mobile Internet to take off people have to want or need to use it more than they wanted or needed to use WAP.

Balboni believes that the first successful applications will emerge from business-to-business e-commerce. Interestingly, this won't be because B2B has any greater need than, say, business-to-consumer, but because a business can control the devices used to access mobile Internet applications.

At present there is a proliferation of non-standard devices, including personal digital assistants and mobile phones, which could be used for mobile Internet access. Balboni expects that one of the early applications will come from a company giving its salespeople a device which they can use to be connected permanently to the office while on the road.

Eventually, though, King believes that "collaboration for the virtual mobile worker will probably emerge as the killer (business) application". For consumers, it is likely to be location-based services that offer a consumer information or services available in the locale in which they find themselves, or the use of wireless devices to order services from vending machines, the price of which is then added to the communications bill.

In this wireless world, what guarantees are there that Goldilocks won't get a brain tumour or leukemia, or that her pacemaker won't go haywire when she's hooked up to the Net?

"Consistently, research funded by the industry has not yet uncovered an effect. That does not mean that an effect could not be found in the future," says David King.

He believes, though, that the industry will take a pragmatic approach in order to allay consumer concerns and will move the transmitter away from the head as a canny marketing initiative.

Over to you, Goldilocks.

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