What a Tangled Web We Weave!
What a Tangled Web We Weave!
By: Jeremy Hill
Mar. 15, 2001 04:10 PM
I have to say that I love introducing new technology to my mother. I recently sent her a WAP phone so she could see the rebirth of the Internet. My mom is a pretty tech-savvy woman, a computer geek herself (you wondered where I got it), but I noted almost instantly her fascination with and difficulty in adopting the new phone as her portal to the Internet. That struck a chord with me for a few reasons.
She has had a number of cell phones that have met some pretty interesting fates. Cellular heaven and hell, I've determined, are flooded with phones run over by cars, dropped from overpasses, and scarred with dog bites. Most of them once belonged to my mother. So she's no newbie to the world of cell phone use (and abuse). And she's a pretty smart gal, one with a good deal of experience in the Internet - yet she couldn't really dive in and get her hands dirty with the wireless Internet.
Herein lies the rub. The wireless Internet is just not user-friendly. In a lot of ways it is user-unfriendly, scaring away a lot of people who'd otherwise benefit from WAP or even SMS (Short Messaging Service), failing to realize its potential.
There are two really great ways to combat this. You can either initiate a massive educational campaign by the industry as a whole to increase consumer awareness of products and services, or you can just make the darn things easier to use, with better, more familiar interfaces.
I think mass education campaigns fail most often because they address the wrong people. "Mass" doesn't imply everyone, just large target groups. I walked into a nameless electronics store I'm sure you're all familiar with (rhymes with Try's) and started asking questions about some of the new phones I saw on display. My phone is about to commit an unexplained suicide; I'm thinking swan dive from the Santa Monica pier. No one really knew the answers to any of my questions. I actually fielded a few from fellow customers in search of the ideal wireless device.
Now granted this unnamed store isn't really known for its future rocket scientist salespeople, nor does it have the reputation as the golden child of the customer service industry, but it really made a point clear. To educate consumers, why not get them from the start? People buy phones all the time, and the major providers throw in the wireless Internet as an "extra" or an "option."
I'm not suggesting that people will ever buy cell phones just for the wireless access to the Internet, but the whole focus of why we go out looking for phones has to change before the wireless Internet becomes a part of everyday life. Ideally I'd like to see a world where we go out and buy devices that keep us connected, via voice and data, to the world at large. If you can explain to people who are buying phones that WAP-enabled phones provide them with a wide range of additional services that are potentially very easy to configure and use, people will flock to them.
But even the cellular providers aren't behind developers on this one. Sprint PCS offers a plan that allows you to choose among three options to be included free of charge in your service plan: free long distance, free nights and weekends, or free wireless Web. I can't think of anyone I know that uses the Sprint wireless Web more than I do, but honestly - what a joke of a decision this is.
Now I don't have any numbers from Sprint regarding the breakdown of how many people choose each plan, so I did a little investigative research. Sneaky and tricky as I am, I made an undercover call to Sprint PCS as nothing more than a mere consumer..little did they know. After a few minutes I was able to speak to a Consumer Advocate (it's okay if you chuckle at that. I do). Tiffany, in a brassy Manhattan voice, asked what she could do for me and I began the interrogation. I wasn't surprised to learn that in the months that Sprint has offered the three options, she has never really had anyone pick Free Wireless Internet.
What message does this send? Clearly, the majority of people aren't informed about what the wireless Web is. As wireless developers I think it is in our best interest to stimulate the market as much as possible. None of us have forgotten how nice it was to be a programmer in December of 1999. But the question is: How? There is no real way for us to change the providers' minds except by creating a large demand for wireless products and services.
And how do we do that? I think it all goes back to the second way in which we can combat the user unfriendliness of the wireless Web: make it easier to use while capitalizing on the inherent benefits of WAP.
Once I explained to my mother that she could have e-mails forwarded to her, she could be paged before important meetings, she could get stock quotes or even movie tickets, make travel reservations, get her horoscope, damn near anything, it became her favorite toy. It's that initial hurdle that's so intimidating. Providing basic information is really within the realm of each developer, and so I pose the challenge to you all to really use and abuse your wireless devices. I make it a point to use my Palm in meetings to retrieve information from our intranet, or to buy tickets to a movie while my friends are standing in a line that stretches around the block. Viva la revolution! By using our devices as exclusively as possible, we can quickly identify the usability issues of the applications we develop. Become one with the end user. Become one with the end user. I am very guilty of designing an application that I think (from behind my application tools) is incredibly easy to use, only to see a user struggle with it because I made a huge oversight in usability.
Long story short (too late): I know that there's a lot of exciting potential for the wireless Internet, but remember that we're developing to an audience that hasn't embraced their tiny phones with ever-shrinking displays to anywhere near the extent of possibly rivaling the desktop PC.
As for my mother, her phone has had a few near-death experiences already, but she is truly loving the independence of her cell phone. I've had to break her of the habit of calling me 5-33-777-33-6-999.
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