By Stephen Baker It was the Internet's next battlefield: The wireless browser. In the early years of this century, tech powerhouses from Microsoft MSFT) to Nokia (NOK) clamored to lay claim to this precious three inches of illuminated real estate. But the cellular service providers owned it. The mobile browser, they figured, was their key to controlling more than 1 billion mobile Web surfers. But was it?
Recent statistics show that U.S. traffic in key areas of mobile browsing have actually been falling so far this year. A study by M:Metrics in Seattle shows that in January, 22.1 million people in the U.S. used a mobile browser to gather news and other information. By May, the number had declined to 21.6 million.
The trouble? You can find out soon enough by trying to type a Web address into a mobile phone and then waiting for new pages or menus to appear. "The click-and-wait experience doesn't work on a mobile phone," says Adam Zawel, an analyst at Yankee Group in Boston.
THREAT TO CARRIERS. That doesn't mean mobile users aren't shuttling mountains of data. The same M:Metrics study shows that they're sending mobile e-mail like mad and downloading ringtones by the millions. And 15.5 million people sent or received photos on their phone in May -- a jump of 9.2% from the previous month.
But if you look at these growing sectors, you see that much of the most popular mobile content is not generated by the cell phone or Internet industries that have been battling over the mobile browser. Indeed, from e-mail to photos, it comes from the users themselves. And the companies at the heart of the mobile e-mail boom -- Research in Motion (RIMM), of BlackBerry fame, and palmOne (PLMO), which makes the Treo PDA -- are outsiders to the cell-phone industry.
That poses a threat to wireless service providers. If they fail to establish popular services on their handsets, they'll be reduced to simple pipelines -- and will be hard pressed to recoup the investments they're making on speedy next-generation wireless networks.
"NEW VIBE." Outsiders are already wading into the market. Last week, Disney (DIS) announced plans to use Sprint's (FON) network for its own mobile-phone service. It's betting that it can come up with enough compelling family-oriented wireless content and services to draw subscribers from traditional carriers (see BW Online, 7/7/05, "Mickey Mouse, Phone Home").
And Earthlink (ELNK) founder Sky Dayton is busy setting up a premium mobile service for early next year -- it's a joint venture between Earthlink and Korea's SK Telecom and targeted at heavy data users, including gamers and video downloaders (see BW Online, 6/22/05, "Sky Dayton's New Flight Plan"). Dayton says he sees plenty of opportunity "to bring a cool, new vibe to an industry that has been dominated by some pretty monolithic companies."
To date, wireless providers have tried to maneuver around browsing frustrations by creating their own easy-to-navigate offerings of weather, news, sports, and game downloads. These "walled gardens" are faring better than browsers, say analysts, in large part because they're simpler to use.
DIRECT TO PC. However, the stand-alone services often cost a lot. More important, they lack ties to the rest of the user's online life. A New York Times subscriber, for example, gets no discount or other benefits when signing up for Verizon Wireless' $4.95-per-month mobile Times offering. That user might as well be two different subscribers.
As outsiders plow into the industry, analysts expect growing numbers of phone services to link directly to the PC. This method, already popular for everything from ringtone downloads to Mapquest searches, allows subscribers to call up services on the computer and receive them on their handset. The key is to not spend time hunting for relevant content.
But this carries a threat for the wireless providers: The more business that takes place away from their three inches of glowing real estate, the less control they'll exert over the mobile Net. Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York