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TECHNOLOGY | Going Mobile

Mobile technology, with its promise of allowing users to work, play and shop any time, anywhere, is poised to lift off.

Technology: Telecom firms race to install next-generation wireless networks that will enable 'the next big thing' to flourish.

April 18, 2002|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After several years of false starts, the grand hopes for mobile commerce in 2002 rest in no small part on the slender shoulders of Adirem Quintel.

The 25-year-old field technician for Nortel Networks Corp. is part of an army of thousands of workers who are quietly yet methodically visiting cellular towers across the nation and upgrading them for a new generation of faster wireless networks.

Quintel typically visits two or three of them a night, each time installing a sophisticated piece of digital switching equipment for Verizon Wireless Inc. that allows cell phones, two-way pagers and hand-held computers to transmit data as fast as desktop PCs with dial-up connections to the Internet.

Wireless carriers expect to have their next-generation wireless networks turned on in the country's major metropolitan areas by year-end. Verizon has launched its Express Network in Salt Lake City, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Northeast corridor connecting Boston, New York and Washington. Sprint PCS Group Inc. plans to switch on its entire nationwide high-speed network this summer. Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and others are going forward with new networks as well.

All of them are betting that the new technology finally will entice Americans to use their cell phones, hand-held computers and other mobile devices to shop and conduct business--a trend that is supplanting the letter "e" in the technology vernacular with the letter "m."

"The potential for m-commerce is directly related to the roll-out of these networks," said Ben Macklin, a senior analyst at EMarketer Inc., a market research firm based in New York. "It provides consumers with a much more compelling type of offering."

Already a hit in parts of Asia and Europe, mobile computing has long been anticipated as the next big thing for the Internet.

For corporate America, so-called m-business promises to help companies streamline their operations and increase efficiency by allowing workers to conduct business without being tethered to the office. It will allow real estate agents to access listings from the road and enable insurance adjusters to process claims without returning to the office.

For consumers, m-commerce offers the tantalizing prospect of shopping for books, baseball tickets or other items on portable gadgets while commuting on the subway or standing in line at the post office. They will be able to exchange electronic greeting cards on their cell phones, place bets on racehorses using two-way pagers and download video games to their personal digital assistants.

Forecasters at New York market research firm Jupiter Media Metrix predict that by 2005, $22.2 billion worth of goods and services will be purchased on mobile devices worldwide. Businesses and consumers in Asia are on track to spend $2.6 billion on m-commerce this year, and their counterparts in Europe are expected to ring up $500 million in sales by Dec. 31.

In contrast, otherwise indulgent North Americans are projected to spend a paltry $100 million using their mobile devices in 2002. But analysts expect those spending habits to change once the faster wireless networks come online.

The new networks--generally called "3G" because they represent the third generation of wireless technology--will enable new forms of m-services, m-entertainment and, of course, m-advertising that are far more appealing than the offerings available in the U.S. today.

Stock trades from wireless PDAs are slow, and Web sites redesigned for tiny cell phone screens are cumbersome to navigate with only about a dozen keys on the number pad. As a result, less than 2% of Americans whose phones are equipped with Web browsers use them for mobile commerce, said Dylan Brooks, Jupiter's senior wireless analyst.

"That points to the lack of a compelling experience," he said. "A fairly large number of people have used their phones to do something, but the actual user experience isn't such that it really ropes people in."

Whether that will change depends on a variety of factors, including the development of new-fangled devices with bigger screens, improvements in voice recognition technology that will eliminate the need to type on miniature keypads, and the emergence of new applications that will entice users to open their wallets.

But after several false starts, analysts now believe the most critical factor for the U.S. is the roll-out of 3G networks.

"I liken it to the automobile: You had to have roads before you could have a car," said Ken Hyers, senior analyst in the mobile carrier services group at Cahners In-Stat/MDR, a Newton, Mass., consulting firm.

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