Get Ready For Wireless E-Commerce

Imagine shopping for that book you need, checking your stock portfolio, or reading yesterday’s sports scores while making a morning subway commute. It is not only feasible, but likely to happen sooner than you think, thanks to the rapidly approaching world of wireless e-commerce.

If you thought a telephone was just a device on which to converse, think again. A new generation of cell phones is Web-ready, even if some of us are not. Currently, about a dozen are on the market, and in the first quarter of 2000, several more are set to debut. At the same time, many cellular companies that provide digital service are ready to facilitate your wireless surfing on the Internet.

Microsoft Readies Wireless Browser

For its part, Microsoft is readying its Mobile Explorer, a wireless version of Internet Explorer based on the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) that allows phones with tiny screens to retrieve information from the Internet. Current plans call for an end-of-the-year introduction.

Phone.com Still Leads The Industry

Microsoft, however, is way behind in the wireless browser race. WAP was developed by U.S. startup Phone.com (NASDAQ:PHCM), along with Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson. Phone.com already has deals in place to offer its wireless UP.Browser on more than 20 phones from the leading manufacturers worldwide. Phone.com, furthermore, has a full product line that allows complete information services to be developed and deployed for wireless devices.

In the U.S., Phone.com is readying the MyPhone information service for use with any Net-ready digital phone. Similar services based on the Phone.com technology are being planned by mobile service providers in countries worldwide.

To continue on its development pathway, Phone.com announced on November 16th that it is planning a public offering of 6.6 million shares at $135 (US$) per share, with 2.2 million sold by the company and 4.4 million shares sold by investors. If completed, Phone.com will raise $266 million.

Palm Enters The Picture

Nokia, still the industry-leader in mobile phone production, has been quietly developing pen-based mobile computer phones with Palm Computing, the leader in palmtops. These devices will use the touch-sensitive screen common on palmtops, rather than a keyboard, and are reportedly going to use a super-charged version of the Palm operating system that already has a significant lead over Windows CE in the palmtop market.

E-Commerce Applications On The Way

In a tip of their technological hat to the inevitability of wireless Internet services, leading e-commerce companies are developing the simple, text-based interfaces required by today’s screen-limited digital phones. Already, Amazon.com has made it possible to purchase from its site using Sprint PCS wireless phones.

Look for other online powerhouses to make similar moves throughout next year, particularly airline companies, brokerages and other time-sensitive services. Delta Air Lines, for example, is already testing access to its flight information data base through cell phones.

The word is that the airline will begin its initial wireless offerings in the second quarter of 2000. Checking flight schedules, gate numbers, and exact arrival and departure times will be free. Additionally, Delta Frequent Flyer program members will eventually be offered enhanced services, including checking their individual itineraries using wireless phones.

Phones running WAP will also be a pathway into online brokerage firm Charles Schwab, enabling wireless stock trading in 2000. Look for the other online brokerages to follow in a stampede.

Europe Is Already Unplugged

Wireless e-commerce is one area where Europe may lead the United States, as Europeans are already taking to wireless communication in record numbers. According to Forrester Research, almost 120 million Europeans already use mobile phones, exchanging more than two billion wireless text messages each month.

By 2003, Forrester projects 219 million Europeans, or one-third of the population, will be on the wireless bandwagon. Of the 50 European e-commerce executives interviewed by Forrester, 90 percent plan to launch sites that will be accessible by mobile phones.

3rd Generation Cellular Networks On The Way

While phones may be getting low speed data services in 2000, today’s cellular networks are still unfriendly to the growing multitude of portable PCs on the market. At effective data speeds of about 14.4K bps, surfing the Web on cellular networks using traditional browsers is interminably slow.

Cellular phone companies, however, are actively developing the third generation of mobile phone service, called IMT-2000. Put simply, IMT-2000 is described as wireless communications any time, anywhere and any type.

While IMT-2000 services are still at least one year away, they will offer reliable data communication rates in the range of 115K bps, which will solve the problems of using regular browsers like Internet Explorer or Netscape over wireless networks.

When these networks come online, they will open the door to an era where virtually every intelligent device that moves will have wireless access to the Internet. E-commerce services will follow in record numbers.

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