On the surface, the mobile Web is a happening place. There's the iPhone in all its glory. More than 30 companies have signed up for the Open Handset Alliance from Google, which aims to bring the wide-open development environment of the Internet to mobile devices.
Nokia, which owns nearly 40 percent of the world market for cellphones, is snapping up Web technology companies and has made an eye-popping US$8.1 billion bid for Navteq, a digital mapping service. There are also the requisite start-ups chasing the market.
It all looks good, but the wireless communications business smacks of a soap opera, with disaster lurking like your next dropped call.
In 2000, the wireless application protocol was supposed to bring the Internet to the cellphone. Our hero turned out to be a flash in the pan.
That was attributed to a lack of high-speed cellular data networks, so a frenzied and costly effort to build third-generation, or 3G, networks ensued. But at a recent conference, 3G was called "a failure" by Caroline Gabriel, an analyst at Rethink Research. She said data would make up only 12 percent of average revenue per user this year, far below the expected 50 percent. (The 12 percent figure does not include text messaging, but you don't need a 3G network to send a text message.)
Similarly, surveys by Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, show that only 13 percent of cell phone users in North America use their phones to surf the Web more than once a month, while 70 percent of computer users view Web sites every day.
"The user experience has been a disaster," says Tony Davis, managing partner of Brightspark, a Toronto venture capital firm that has invested in two mobile Web companies.
While many phones have some form of Web access, most are hard to use -- just finding a place to type in a Web address can be a challenge. And once you find it, most Web content doesn't look very good on cell phone screens. Even the iPhone's browser can disappoint. It has a version of the Apple Safari browser that doesn't support Flash, a programming language widely used on Web sites, so users are limited in what they can see on the Web.
And, you pay a lot to experience the pain of surfing the mobile Web. Lewis Ward, an analyst at the International Data Corp, compares the mobile Web today to AOL before it went with flat-rate pricing in the early 1990s. Most people surf on a pay-per-kilobyte model, which encourages them to surf as fast as they can, he says.
The carriers, however, seem to be having a change of heart about the mobile Web. AT&T has allowed Apple unusual control over the network in the iPhone, and Sprint and T-Mobile have signed on to the Android development platform of the Open Handset Alliance.
Industry watchers think that having started, the mobile Web will inexorably open over the next five years, solving many problems.
For instance, there's the challenge of finding things on the Web from a mobile phone. John SanGiovanni, founder and vice president for products and services at Zumobi, which was spun out of Microsoft Research, says his company hopes to make it easier for phone users to find phone-ready versions of sites they want.
On Dec. 14, it plans to introduce the beta, or test, version of its slick-looking software. It will include colorful "tiles" that phone users can "zoom" into and out of quickly as they move from site to site.