Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
The Real Wireless Innovators 

The wireless business is futile if you know technology but don't know what your 
customers want. 
There is a song making the rounds in the wireless world right now that goes a 
little something like this: "WAP was overhyped by the media, but we never expected 
it to be a big deal. The real wireless action is coming in the future, from things 
such as 3G and m-commerce. There is nothing wrong with what we are doing-wireless is 
simply taking a while to develop, just as the Web did."

Don't believe it. The comparison between the early days of the Web and wireless is 
useful, but it is anything but favorable to wireless. The comparison actually 
highlights what has gone wrong with wireless data services so far, and how much ground 
the traditional wireless players are giving up to new competitors, who have a much 
better idea of what users want and a much longer history of giving it to them.

As anyone who was around in 1993 can tell you, the Web was useful right out of the 
box. Even in the days of the text-only Internet, Tim Berners-Lee's original Web browser 
blew the other text-only search tools such as Archie and Gopher right out of the water. 
Unlike WAP, the Web got to where it is today by being useful when it launched, and 
staying useful every single day since.

Contrast the early user experiences with wireless data. When makers of wireless phones 
first turned their efforts to data services, they proposed uses for the wireless Web 
that ranged from the unimaginative (weather forecasts) to the downright ghastly (ads 
that ring your phone when you walk by a store).

Because the phone companies thought they owned their customers, it never occurred to 
them that a numeric keypad and a tiny screen might not be adequate for email. They 
seem to have actually believed that they had all the time in the world to develop 
their wireless data offerings-after all, who could possibly challenge them? So they 
have allowed companies that understand flexible devices, such as Motorola (MOT, info) 
and Research in Motion, to walk away with the wireless email market, the once and 
future killer app.

Wireless telcos would like you to believe that these are all just growing pains, but 
there is another explanation for the current difficulties of the wireless sector: 
Telephone companies are not very good at producing anything but telephones. Everything 
about the telcos-makers of inflexible hardware, with a form-factor optimized for voice, 
and notoriously bad customer service-suggests that they would be the last people on 
Earth you would trust to create a good experience with things such as wireless email 
or portable computing.

As always, the great exception here is NTT DoCoMo, which had the sense to embrace HTML 
(actually, a subset called compact HTML) and let anyone build content that its i-mode 
device could read. And NTT DoCoMo also made sure the services it provides do something 
its customers are interested in-and in many cases are willing to pay for.

The technology is not the difficult part of making useful wireless devices. The 
companies creating good wireless customer experiences-Research in Motion with its 
BlackBerry, Apple (AAPL, info) Computer with its AirPort wireless networking technology, 
and Motorola with its Talkabout-are companies that know how to create good customer 
experiences, period. If you know what customers want and how to give it to them, it is 
easier to go wireless than if you know only wireless technology and have to figure out 
what customers want.

Own worst enemies
The difficulties in the early days of wireless data had nothing to do with telcos 
needing time to develop their services. Instead, those difficulties were caused by the 
telcos' determination to maintain a white-knuckled grip on their customers, a 
determination that made them unwilling to embrace existing standards or share revenue 
with potential affiliates. Ironically, this grip has made it easier, not more difficult, 
for competitors to muscle in, because the gap between what users want and what the 
telcos were providing was so large.

The wireless sector is slowly melting, becoming part of lots of other businesses. If 
you want to know who will create a good wireless shopping experience, bet on 
(AMZN, info), not Ericsson (ERICY, info). If you want to know who will create the best 
m-commerce infrastructure, look to Citibank, not Nokia (NOK, info). Contrary to the 
suggestion that the wireless sector will live apart from the rest of the technology 
landscape, wireless is an adjective-the things that make a good wireless personal 
digital assistant or a good wireless computer are very different from those that make 
a good wireless phone.

This is not to say there isn't a fortune to be made in supplying wireless phones. Nor 
is being a wireless network for BlackBerrys and Talkabouts a bad business-as I write 
this column, GoAmerica (GOAM, info) Communications is doing quite well.

But the real breakout wireless services are being launched not by the telcos but by 
innovative device and service companies who think of wireless as a feature, not as 
an end in itself.

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Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source