Injecting reality into m-commerce buzz

By Martin LaMonica, InfoWorld |  Networking

There is no argument that handheld computers and wireless networks will usher in a wave of potentially explosive growth in electronic and mobile commerce. And U.S. technology providers and policy makers are petrified of missing the boat. A week after President Clinton urged accelerated development of 3G (third generation) wireless networks, Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta last week worried out loud about U.S. competitiveness with Europe and Asia in developing a wireless industry.

I recently spent two weeks in northern Europe, and consumers there were clear about one thing: voice, not data, is the killer app for wireless today. With no prodding, friends and relatives said the word was that WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) services were a disappointment. In other words, in those countries most advanced in mobile communications, consumers know the limitations of the wireless Web.

Needless to say, a shaky network infrastructure in the United States and immature protocols limit the types of services available. But businesses are still seeking that must-have consumer service. People joining the mobile-commerce revolution use mobile devices to check sports scores; but other transactions made from the bus, such as buying books or trading stocks, aren't high on consumers' lists.

Things aren't likely to change soon. After the expected fortune providers pay for 3G spectrum, the astronomical costs of building a stable wireless network infrastructure means that the futuristic vision of videoconferencing with mobile devices is still a long way away.

Despite this, IT departments can drive innovation. Our Page One story this week by Ephraim Schwartz and Cathleen Moore shows that business-oriented wireless applications are showing signs of success. Giving roaming salespeople access to customer accounts anywhere may not be glamorous, but by targeting mobile apps at corporate environments less fickle than consumers on public networks, business may be riding the crest of the wireless wave.

When will your company use mobile business applications?

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