Calling For Cola

In San Francisco--a city famous for its optimism about anything smaller, faster or smarter--wireless Internet technology is the talk of the town. So when industry heavyweights got together for the annual Unwired Universe conference here this week, you could cut the irrational exuberance with a knife. "The hype in this market is extraordinary, even by Silicon Valley standards," said one conference participant.

Not that it's totally unreasonable. The value of wireless companies are going through the roof; witness this week's purchase of Bellevue, Wash.,-based player VoiceStream by German phone giant Deutsche Telekom, for a whopping $45 billion dollars. And while the mobile Internet market consists mostly of 16 million or so users around the world who send e-mail and check stock quotes on their phones, that number is expected to explode to 100 million users only a year from now. Analysts also predict that by 2005, wireless services are expected to become a $50 billion industry, with more than 500 million users worldwide.

So it's no surprise that wireless companies are desperately racing to carve out a nice, fat piece of the pie. At the Unwired Universe conference, they showcased their latest strategies. Phone.com, the industry leader in wireless Internet software using the Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP, trotted out its newest features--support for color phone displays, instant messaging, and location-specific content. With the latter you might, say, receive personalized coupons as you pass a specific store, or customized traffic reports based on what freeway you're stuck on. Meanwhile, around the jam-packed conference floor, booths hawked everything from online navigation information, to a cell-phone-sized video game called "Alien Fish Exchange." At the booth of New York-based design firm Razorfish, you could even use a cell phone to buy cans of soda from a vending machine--a feature that's more common overseas, but remains a novelty in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has a long way to go before wireless Web access in general reaches the kind of market penetration it's already seeing in Japan and Europe. Some industry particpants say U.S. cellular carriers, like Sprint and AT&T, have been too restrictive in the exclusive partnerships they strike with content providers like AOL. "We have to open up the sandbox and let everyone come in and play," says Joe Lima of Dokoni, a San Diego-based portal. Others, like Reed Hundt, former chairman of the FCC, warn that that government has been too slow in opening up the UHF broadcast spectrum to wireless providers--leaving American wireless companies with only about half of the spectra available in Europe. "If the U.S. does not react quickly and smartly, wireless and therefore Internet leadership will head east across the Atlantic to Europe," Hundt says. In Silicon Valley, a place that prides itself on doing things quickly and smartly, the techies at the Unwired Universe conference are listening.

Calling For Cola | News