Three wireless networks heading our way; misleading survey clouds the WAP picture
WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE of these alternate wireless networks soon to be springing up around the country? Three immediately spring to mind. The newest is SwiftComm, from Mitsubishi. Then there's iBurst, from ArrayComm, and Metricom's Ricochet network.
After talking to all three technology providers, I can tell you that they all have the major telecom wireless service providers in their sights as their ultimate customers. More about that later.
First let's take a look at what these three offer. Ricochet in its coverage areas allows users to access the Internet at near warp speed, 128Kbps. The network is pricey at $75 to $80 per month and requires a Ricochet-enabled modem. Coverage is currently 12 metropolitan areas and 15 airports. Metricom has 30,000 individual subscribers, but is now offering its service only to service providers.
ArrayComm's network uses what it calls SmartAntenna technology. The network is in trials in the United States and is used by the Personal Handyphone network in Japan.
Whereas cellular channels are usually identified by frequency, time slot, or codes, the ArrayComm SmartAntenna technology adds a spatial metric for deploying cellular coverage. This allows SmartAntenna to reuse the same channel many times over. For example, using the spatial technology, two users standing inches apart from each other can be sharing the channel. ArrayComm promises up to 1Mbps broadband data connections to the Internet over its new iBurst service when it becomes commercially available.
Finally, we have Mitsubishi. The corporation is promising to invest up to $500 million in infrastructure to bring 20Mbps wireless Internet access to the United States. SwiftComm's @irPointer, a pen-like device that accesses the base stations situated on towers in cities and along highways, links to SwiftComm servers and routers, which access the Internet. The pointer connects via cable or Bluetooth-enabled technology to almost any mobile device.
Taking it as a given that any one of these three wireless networks will provide high-speed, low-cost access to intranet and Internet sites and offer a solid return on investment, what is really in play here?
Unless all the major telecom providers adopt one of these technologies or ignore them all and settle on a standard 3G (third generation) system, we are headed for a fractured world of competing and incompatible wireless data networks. Once again, it is the customer -- even the largest of corporate customers -- who will lose out as the various service providers seek to differentiate themselves and in the process rob customers of the chance for a single, ubiquitous wireless network.
The Nielsen Norman Group, in Fremont, Calif., has recently released a 90-page study entitled "WAP Usability -- Déjà vu: 1994 all over again" (see www.Nngroup.com/reports/wap).
The study claims that WAP (Wireless Application Protocol)-enabled cell phones are pitifully poor and haven't changed much in their usability since 1994. I read the executive summary and will attempt to read the entire survey soon. But one of the survey's major conclusions is based on misleading information.
The survey says, "Our conclusion that WAP doesn't work is based mainly on our examination of timed-task performance studies."
They asked 20 users with WAP phones in London to access a weather forecast. (Why anyone in London would need to access a weather forecast is beyond me. They all walk around with umbrellas anyway.) And the numbers are thus: It took 2.7 minutes for new users of WAP phones to check the local weather. After a week of use, it took those same users 1.9 minutes to access the local weather.
The study says the improvement is minimal and anything longer than 30 seconds is so poor that no one will bother to use the service.
"Our basic conclusion is that WAP usability fails miserably; accomplishing even the simplest tasks takes much too long to provide any user satisfaction. It should not take two minutes to find the current weather forecast."
OK, so I asked Jakob Nielsen, one of the creators of the survey, this question: "Do those times represent the time from the moment the person undertook a task to the time he or she figured out how to 'do' the task, or to the time that the information actually showed up on the phone?"
I was trying to discern if there was a problem using the WAP user interface.
Nielsen replied, "The definition is always the same: Task time is the time elapsed from [the time] we asked the user to do something until he or she has the answer. In this case, this means until the information was displayed on the phone."
Well what in the world does that have to do with WAP? Does WAP access to the Internet take longer than access via any other transport protocol over a narrowband network? The study on WAP has reached a conclusion that includes network performance in its measurement. Unfair, Mr. Nielsen.