Kool-Aid into Lemonade
Kool-Aid into Lemonade
Aug. 22, 2001 12:00 AM
Marketing mobile technologies to consumers as the "the Internet in the palm of your hand" may have been an oversell. It's time for hte industry to figure out practical ways for consumers to use mobile applications.
As professionals in the wireless telecommunications business, we're often presented with a unique challenge. We're caught between the need to produce innovative technology and the pressure to generate immediate revenue. Investors are interested in supporting cutting-edge technology that's unique and has huge market potential. At the same time they require that we're able to apply our technology innovations to business models that can produce short-term revenue. The problem arises when you try to apply new technology to the existing environment. Cutting-edge technology is not always ready for mass adoption by the existing "critical mass" of consumers.
This situation is not unlike those faced by our predecessors who worked to build the Internet business. The dot-com boom was fueled by the desire to constantly develop and deploy new technology for Internet consumers. The drive for new technology attracted massive investment seeking to capitalize on its promises. We collectively bought into the vision of "build it and they will come." But was the Internet - and its consumers - ready for all the new technology that the dot-com industry was developing? Clearly not.
Many of the innovations in the dot-com era were predicated on the assumptions that Internet consumers had the appropriate infrastructure, equipment, and desire to use all the new technology that was flooding into the market. Internet industry execs suffered from the "throw it against the wall and see what sticks" mentality. The Internet industry, and much of the world for that matter, collectively bought into the vision that most consumers would be in a situation that would facilitate the use of advanced technologies, and would want to employ them, just because they could. But would they? Even today, the promise of the Internet remains a promise.
The majority of Internet users still lack the basic requirements necessary to take advantage of the innovative technologies being developed. Most people don't have access to sufficient bandwidth to utilize rich media applications. Some of the equipment available to today's Internet consumers does not fit neatly into their lives, and its use would require a behavioral change that usually doesn't come about unless there's some sort of burning pain, a problem that needs to be solved. So most consumers simply don't take advantage of new technologies that are introduced.
The wireless telecommunications industry has also bought into the promise of a future consumer environment that will accommodate the technology we're building today. We collectively share the vision of a 3G world that can support advanced wireless telecomputing technologies. We often make the assumption that consumers are ready to employ the new technology we've developed.
As innovators we're constantly seeking to offer newer, more advanced technology to consumers. We share ideas and fuel each other's dreams of practical applications of our new technologies in an existing market. This enthusiasm, which can be critical for the development of an industry, is again producing an effect that has us "drinking from the same Kool-Aid."
The reality of today's wireless computing world is much different than the vision of the one we're building. While it's true that the number of wireless consumers is growing at a geometric rate, most are not ready for much of the technology that's now being introduced. We need to closely examine the delta between our vision of the future and the consumer's current reality.
Bringing the Vision into Focus
To begin, let's look at the equipment currently being used by consumers. Most of today's mobile devices lack the form factor necessary to make them useful in people's everyday lives. Screens on most phones are too small and lack the color and resolution needed to produce a compelling experience. Additionally, the input mechanism of most mobile devices is not convenient for the average consumer to use.
At this point in time, most consumers do not have access to the fat-bandwidth and persistent data connections necessary for delivering our shared vision of wireless telecomputing. In fact most data access rates fall somewhere between 10-20kbs. The ability to access data while roaming is appealing, but the experience of slow connection leaves consumers disappointed and frustrated.
Finally, we need to look at whether it's realistic to expect consumers to take advantage of all of the bold new wireless technology we're throwing over the fence. Do they have the need or desire to involve such technology in their lives? This is where we need to closely examine consumers' wants and realistic usage projections. Today, the primary means for accessing the Internet through a mobile device is by way of technologies such as WAP and SMS. We've sold these technologies to consumers as "the Internet in the palm of your hand."
This could have been an oversell. Most consumers find it difficult to use technologies such as WAP, given the existing limitations. The result is that most people are disappointed by today's mobile Internet experience and don't actively take advantage of it. In fact, most people who have the networks and equipment to use this new technology, don't.
The nature of this industry will not let these problems exist for very long, but will we alienate consumers with our promises long before we get the chance to make improvements? With the speed of technological innovation constantly pushing to deliver smaller devices, with more processing power and better access to services and information, a crisis may be averted, but it takes being aware of, and learning from, past mistakes. If you look at the statistics, in the future, hundreds of millions of people will have access to the Internet only through mobile devices.
We can't continue to drink from the same Kool-Aid and build on a promise of fat-bandwidth, persistent, 3G technology. Our challenge as an industry is to identify the limitations of today's existing mobile computing environment and deliver technologies that are useful today and can expand with tomorrow's developments.
As I mentioned earlier, investors want to back exciting new technology and innovative teams. They also seek investments in technology that will yield the greatest return on investment in the shortest period of time. These seemingly opposing needs leave us with the problem of figuring out how to apply the latest and greatest new technologies to the limitations of an existing market.
I believe a solution to the problem lies in the concept of evolution. Technology cannot be introduced to consumers in a "Big Bang" way; it needs to be introduced over time in a more evolutionary manner. The Internet began as a rudimentary network of information and was accessible via tools designed for a more technically sophisticated user. It wasn't until the development of the World Wide Web and its "user friendly" tools, that the Internet reached mass consumer adoption.
Learning from Past Mistakes
Our industry has already gone through a short cycle of similar optimism. Less that a year ago investors were eager to fund any new wireless technology company. Already, there are stories of wireless telecommunications companies experiencing similar downturns to those of the Internet industry (layoffs, consolidations, etc.) But all is not lost. Mobile technology is still being adopted by consumers at increasing rates. We need to take a situation that's starting to erode and make the best of it.
We need to turn lemons into lemonade. I believe the key to accomplishing this formidable challenge is to identify the serious pains consumers are having with their current technologies or lack-of technologies. In other words, what do they really need to make their lives easier? Asking that question seems so obvious, but are we really doing it? As an industry, we must generate answers to that question, and create simple solutions that can meet current needs of consumers, and be expanded as the environment becomes more sophisticated.
Do consumers need to conduct video conferencing from their mobile devices or do they need a fast and easy way to communicate with others? Do they want a way to securely and quickly access bank and stock information or the ability to manage their finances while walking down the street? It would be remarkable to promise consumers the ability to be instantaneously transported to a desired location but the question is, do they really want that now? Will they settle for maps and directions delivered to their mobile devices until we get atomic transportation figured out? I think so.
Internet companies such as AOL have been very successful in introducing simple solutions that enable the average consumer to take advantage of complex technology. As AOL's consumers have become more sophisticated, they've developed their technology to meet customers' needs. Let the market drive technology, and not the need for innovation of technology drive consumers.
Given our current limitations, WAP is a great tool in the hands of a slightly sophisticated consumer. Selling WAP as a means to access the World Wide Web by the average consumer is a bad idea. WAP technology and consumers must both evolve before the two are able to come together to form a truly meaningful and useful relationship.
As a consumer I'm eager to try new technologies that make my life simpler - products that turn mundane tasks into easy activities, freeing up more time for the things I enjoy. This is the promise of the wireless telecommunications market. But when technology fails to deliver on promises made, my experience is soured. This in turn makes me less likely to adopt new technology.
The future of mobile computing seeks to provide technology that will enhance the "personal area network" for its users. It creates efficiencies in people's lives and allows unprecedented access to information in a dynamic new way. These are great offerings and can expand the dimensions of the average person's life. But what are the technologies that are available today that can immediately remove current frustrations or relieve the pain that people experience?
We need to identify these opportunities and seek to apply new technological innovations in ways that solve these problems now. By identifying today's pains and finding ways to alleviate them, we'll build a foundation for an "upgrade path" to new technologies when the market is ready. Better yet, we'll have created technologies that are married to the business models our investors seek.
I believe the wireless telecommunications industry has a bright future. We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes made recently by our dot-com predecessors. We cannot continue to drink the Kool-Aid and blindly move forward without solutions that can satisfy consumers' immediate needs and desires.
We, ourselves, have recently experienced a slight "correction" in this market and need to overcome its souring effect. We can do this by identifying mobile consumers' existing pains and seeking ways to immediately apply our technology to make their lives easier. By doing so, we diminish barriers and help pave the way for delivering products and services that they'll continue to want and use.
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