Readying a wireless world

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As vp-yahoo! Everywhere, Mohan Vishwanath oversees what many say is the future of Yahoo! -- life beyond the desktop on wireless devices. The irony, though, is Mr. Vishwanath's original ideas for wireless weren't intended for Yahoo! or even the U.S. market.

Mr. Vishwanath had just left Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center, where he was researching video compression and ubiquitous computing, when he met up in 1996 with some former flatmates from the University of Bombay.

ALTERNATIVE DEVICES

"We decided sometime in our life to become entrepreneurs," he says. "We strongly believed and continue to believe alternative devices are going to be the primary mode of Internet access in many developing countries for reasons of affordability."

So Mr. Vishwanath and friends Anurag Mendhekar and Sridhar Ranganathan founded Online Anywhere. The company created a program that automates the translation of Web pages into a format viewable by wireless devices, such as Wireless Application Protocol pages viewed by mobile phones.

He says Online Anywhere was among the first wireless application service providers, providing sites with outsourced wireless services.

"There are 84 wireless ASPs today," he says, by way of explaining the explosion of growth. "It's a challenge to maintain that many versions of your Web site."

Online Anywhere was in start-up mode when it inked a partnership in April 1999 to provide services to Yahoo!. Two months later Yahoo! bought the company for an undisclosed amount and merged it into its Yahoo! Everywhere mobile unit. The unit now aggregates Yahoo! content and makes it accessible across a wide range of wireless devices, including Palm Inc.'s Palm and Sprint Corp.'s Sprint PCS wireless services. Users can check sports scores, read and respond to e-mail, and bid on auctions, among other things.

PHONE ADVERTISING

While it was a difficult decision to sell the company, Mr. Vishwanath says, "We were at a crossroads. At that time, we could have brought in experienced management" to run the company or sell out. Even though he and his partners entertained an offer from Motorola, "we felt that Yahoo! was a much better fit."

(It's interesting to note Mr. Vishwanath's wife was then employed as a Yahoo! computer engineer.)

Even though wireless usage is greater outside the U.S., Yahoo!, and rivals America Online and Microsoft Corp., have rapidly embraced wireless. Yahoo! has signed deals with Sprint PCS and AT&T Corp.'s wireless unit as well as 26 other carriers globally. AOL has also made considerable progress, inking a partnership with NTT DoCoMa, the biggest wireless carrier/content provider in Japan.

"We'll be launching some very simple types of advertising on the phone," Mr. Vishwanath says. "On the product side, we'll be doing it within the next three months. Advertisers all want to try it out."

So far advertising has been limited to promotions such as sponsored Olympics sports scores alerts.

While he declines to say how big Yahoo!'s wireless audience is, he projects it attracts the second-largest wireless user base outside of NTT DoCoMa, which has about 10 million users.

`KEY PART OF YAHOO!'

"We've become a key part of Yahoo!," he says, explaining that the unit has become one of the company's core strategic areas, up there with commerce, enterprise services, rich media and global strategies.

Yahoo! Everywhere has been rolled out from China to the U.K., Italy, Germany, Norway, the Philippines, Spain and Sweden. Mr. Vishwanath says Yahoo! will launch soon in South America and in other European countries.

A microcosm of what the future holds is the use of wireless devices going on in Mr. Vishwanath's home, where his 2 1/2-year-old twins roam around the house with orange and green Apple iBook laptops equipped with wireless access.

Although, he admits, right now, "I think they use them mostly for games."

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