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What I Got Right About the Wireless Web


In 1999, I was right about the transformative power of the mobile Net. It just took longer, and help from the iPhone, for the scenario to play out

Have you ever heard this mobile marketing scenario? A young woman is walking near a Starbucks (SBUX). Her phone buzzes. She sees a message that a friend is nearby. If she clicks yes, she agrees to meet that friend at a nearby Starbucks—and both of them get a discount on their cappuccino.

I dreamed up that scenario nearly a decade ago. It was based on the promise of the location-based services that I was learning about in Europe's hot spots, Helsinki and Stockholm. I included it in a cover story on smartphones. "An e-commerce fantasy?" I wrote. "Hardly. Such a scene could happen in London next year."

A couple of years later, I moved back from Europe to New York. The wireless Web had failed to deliver on its early promises, and my New York colleagues—many still skeptical about mobile technologies—reminded me more than once of my Starbucks vision. Yes, I had been guilty of hype. And for years I turned my attention from the mobile Web.

"Silly Old Starbucks Story"

But I finally returned to it. Just a few weeks ago, I was on the phone with an investor in the industry, talking again about the mobile Internet for my story, "The Next Net." When I asked him about how companies would make money, he said, "Well, it's not going to be like that silly old Starbucks story…"

"Starbucks?" I sat straighter in my chair and asked him which story he was referring to. He mentioned the person going by the café and getting a coupon. When I told him that I had written that 10 years ago, he explained that it had developed into something of an urban legend. It became shorthand for the hyped promises of the late 1990s. "At least when you wrote it," he said, trying to soothe my hurt feelings, "it wasn't a cliché."

Still, this led me to consider what I got right and what I got wrong in 1999, and what it says about the advance of technology.

First, I was wrong to accept the timetables for the phone companies' technology roadmaps. It had a certain logic at the time. The big phone companies were bidding billions of dollars for mobile spectrum, and they had to develop data services to make good on the investments. But since when does extremely complex technology have to develop on a schedule to make good on perhaps foolish and excessive investments? Answer. It doesn't.

The Birth of the iPhone

Second, I underestimated the complexity of the entire endeavor. It involved not only building high-speed networks, but also easy-to-use handsets and lots of great software applications. This process took a decade and didn't get a vital push until the birth of the iPhone and Apple's (AAPL) App Store.

Still, I believe more than ever that I was right way back in 1999 about the transformative power of the mobile Internet. I see no reason why that Starbucks scenario won't play out some day, especially now that people in 27 countries are downloading Google's (GOOG) friend-finding Latitude application.

But just as important as the services we receive on the mobile Internet will be the behavioral data we produce. (That was another point I missed.) Those of us carrying smartphones are moving about in an immense and growing laboratory of human behavior—one that I believe will change not only the nature of customer relations, but also our understanding of ourselves.

Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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