Third-generation wireless misses market

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With the extremely successful rollout of its i-mode wireless data service, Japan’s NTT DoCoMo Inc., is getting more good press than Fidel Castro in the pages of the Cuban daily Granma Internacional. After only 10 months in service, i-mode has attracted some 17 million customers, offering skeptics some tangible evidence that a market for wireless data exists.

Add to that the $9.8 billion stake DoCoMo took in AT&T Wireless Group last month, and the wireless industry is suddenly abuzz with renewed anticipation of the so-called third-generation, or 3G, of wireless service, which promises to deliver T1-like speeds to portable phones and palmtop devices.

The marketing emphasis so far has been on creating enough hype to spur consumer demand. Yet even as service providers seem bent on chasing the consumer market, they worry about its size. Meanwhile, the industry seems to be overlooking b-to-b possibilities.

Perhaps, upon reviewing growth projections, they may see value in cultivating b-to-b applications. The information technology tools exist to accommodate it; all that’s needed is a bit of creativity and a few applications platforms.

Wireless ways

That’s not to say there isn’t such thinking going on in some corners. Sun Microsystems Inc.’s iPlanet, the e-commerce arm of the Sun-Netscape alliance, sees great potential for extending office communications and workgroup management functions into wireless devices.

"Calendaring and group scheduling could be the killer application, especially if this type of information can be pushed to users," said Sophie Callies, VP-worldwide geo-marketing with iPlanet.

Granted, wireless data offers easy ways of accessing office servers without dialing up over a wired line or trying to connect through a remote server (which sometimes doesn’t recognize an employee laptop) in another company office. And being able to do this simply and easily from a cell phone saves time, money, energy and frustration.

Yet the effort toward b-to-b applications development could be better, given the fact that the widespread adoption of wireless networking by large enterprises could be the good, sound kick in the pants needed to get momentum going for wireless data, now and for 3G, in the future.

But this means going beyond calendaring. The important thing to remember about wireless data is that it marries Internet access with personalization and independence of location. There is no reason Intranet and extranet functions can’t be extended to the palmtop. These include all the functions now associated with b-to-b applications: ordering, fulfillment and tracking, account management and inventory control.

We’re not talking about the ability to do all these from the beach, although there’s no reason that can’t be the case. From a more mundane standpoint, many individuals who are part of the b-to-b value chain spend a good deal of their day away from their desks—and away from a wired PC. When you begin to think about this, the practical value of b-to-b applications over small, wireless devices becomes clear.

While most analysts are optimistic about the long-term prospects for wireless data, jump-starting interest is still of great concern.

Market analysts say the chief rap against wireless data in the U.S. is that everyone has PCs. Indeed, that may slow adoption on the consumer side, but in b-to-b, it invites some creative solutions and, perhaps, a unique market model.

Steven Titch is founder of Expert Editorial Inc. and editor in chief of

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