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How successful is the internet as a communications medium? The question may seem a little frivolous, since clearly it is already fantastically successful. But the story of the mobile internet has been one of hype that has, so far, failed to deliver. In particular, the extent to which the internet is a good medium of mobile communication continues to be under the spotlight.
The issue is the extent to which the internet has converged with mobile telephony. According to Bill Gajda, chief marketing officer of the GSM Association, it is already a reality. He points to users who are downloading multimedia content and operators that are rolling-out the networks that enable this kind of activity. The key technology is High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA). Mr Gajda points out that it is available in 64 networks across 39 countries with live commercial services.
However, availability does not imply use, or even inevitable take-up. The elephant in the room during many conversations about HSDPA and the like, is the fact that mobile phones are not the devices that people typically choose to access websites. A recent survey by Hostway, a website-hosting company, found that 73 per cent of users still do not access the internet from their mobile device. Many concluded that the pages load too slowly for small screens, making it difficult to navigate websites.
The argument is that mobile web browsing simply does not live up to the expectations of users. For most, downloading a dotcom website on to a mobile screen is still a slow, frustrating and expensive experience. It is for this reason that initiatives like dotMobi have sprung up. These are websites that sport the “.mobi” tag, which are designed for mobile use. They offer traditional websites in bite-sized chunks that can be speedily loaded on to handsets, and look good on smaller screens. To date, nearly 130,000 .mobi domains have been purchased – suggesting at the very least that companies do not want to lose valuable .mobi domains should it take off.
However, not everyone believes this is the best option. Novarra, a mobile internet provider specialist, argues that the answer is not a bite-sized internet, or a reduction of choice that makes the online world easier to cope with on a handset. Rather, the issue is one of openness – unless the standards are in place to make websites handset agnostic, the user experience will be compromised, and, therefore, unappealing.
Another finger is often pointed at the barriers to simply connecting. In particular, the problems a user must overcome to access the mobile internet – barriers of cost and convenience. Currently, WiMax is the solution that is being most hyped. The idea is that service providers will create large metropolitan wireless networks so people can use the same device wherever they are to access voice and data services. Advocates admit that such networks are still a few years away, but they believe the technology itself will be fit for purpose. Moreover, it will be cheaper than competitor technologies.
Unsurprisingly, however, WiMax has its critics, too. Ken Munro, managing director of SecureTest, a security specialist, says that the security industry is now questioning whether WiMax can deliver. “Like WiFi, security is not part of the initial specification for WiMax,” he argues. “Security is viewed as a software function and is therefore an ‘add-on’ or ‘nice-to-have’.” The implication is that WiMax will not be secure enough for serious use.
A slightly different argument has to do with the difficulty of searching online when mobile, and transacting. “We have been limited by poor ability to search for content, operator-walled gardens and lack of a cost effective and simple payments infrastructure,” argues Neil Garner, management director of Glue4, a mobile technology company. “The web only truly took off when the problems of search and transactions had been addressed. In a similar way, mobile will truly take off when search is quick and simple, and when transactions are simple, secure and cost effective.” Mr Garner believes that the emerging technology NFC will be crucial. It enables mobiles to interact with real world adverts by simply touching them. It also simplifies payments by touching the phone to a payment card. “This will be the critical enabler not another faster connectivity option,” he says.
Finally, the mobile internet has to overcome some cultural hurdles. For example, the i-mode service from DoCoMo has been very successful in Japan. At least in part, this is due to a strong cultural familiarity with using gadgets and technology, as well as the easier deployment of high-speed networks in smaller geographic areas. “Above all, i-mode was well designed as an all-encompassing, user-centric service that incorporates browsing, messaging, secure payments and entertainment via a simple user interface,” adds Mr Garner.
The debate around these issues will undoubtedly continue for some time, and a lot of money is at stake. It is for this reason that some operators are hedging their bets. “Orange believes that true convergence is actually still a long way off and the journey will be incremental,” explains Alastair MacLeod, vice president of Orange Business Services UK. The company, therefore, offers a mixed bag of fixed, broadband and mobile services in order to both service different customers as they wish now, and to be ready for whatever shape the integration of these networks adopts in the future.
In the meantime, what is likely to happen are the extension of PC/mobile combination services. Typically, a customer initiates a transaction on the mobile phone for convenience, and then continues the transaction, having received further information by e-mail on their PC.
An example of this is O’Grady Peyton, a division of AMN Healthcare that recruits nurses from abroad to work in the US. It achieved a 35 per cent increase in response to adverts in the UK by allowing nurses to complete the initial application via their mobile phones.