A Hard Look at Wireless Commerce Hardware

Why an increasingly attractive mobile B-to-B market is leading to handset innovations and competition

By Richard Mitchell | Posted Nov 14, 2000
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Is the business world ready for mobile electronic commerce? If recent product launches by handset vendors is any indication, the answer is a resounding "affirmative." As e-commerce becomes an increasingly important and efficient way for companies to engage in business-to-business selling, and transaction activity explodes, the market is overflowing with new and upgraded hardware and software technologies.

While most support traditional personal computer-based activity, more products are being aimed at the surging wireless sector. The potential mobile commerce market is huge, with London-based research firm Ovum Ltd. projecting worldwide revenues to total $210.8 billion by 2005, and ARC Group projecting that 410 million handsets will be delivered in 2000. The Surrey, U.K.-based research firm forecasts that the handset "will rapidly become the single most important and valued personal items people have."

Most users today just rely on handsets for voice communications and business-to-consumer transactions. But as newer wireless technologies make mobile handsets more conducive to e-business, handset and application developers are targeting the B-to-B sector.

A chief driver is the wireless application protocol (WAP), a universal standard for allowing WAP-enabled devices to easily access and exchange data with the Internet. More hand-held devices are being manufactured with WAP browsers to make them Internet-ready upon delivery.

WAP is designed to work with most wireless networks, including CDPD, CDMA, GSM, PDC, PHS, TDMA, FLEX, ReFLEX, iDEN, TETRA, DECT, DataTAC and Mobitex. It also can be built on any operating system including PalmOS, EPOC, Windows CE, FLEXOS, OS/9 and JavaOS.

Handset manufacturers also are developing products that support Bluetooth, a radio technology built around an embedded chip that makes it possible to transmit signals over short distances between telephones, computers and other devices without the use of wires. Bluetooth allows users to download documents to personal computers from their handsets.

"E-commerce vendors are extending their focus to the B-to-B sector from the more popular consumer market. "

WAP and Bluetooth are among the technologies that handset vendors are counting on to turn mobile devices into B-to-B transaction tools. "B-to-B mobile commerce has a lot of potential," says Riddhi Patel, senior analyst for Aberdeen Group Inc., a Boston-based computer and communications consulting and market research firm. "All the enterprises and organizations want to extend their applications, information and content beyond the Internet and are looking to get it out to mobile devices. It helps with instant decision-making, and real-time information is becoming critical to any organization."

In response, e-commerce vendors are extending their focus to the B-to-B sector from the more popular consumer market. In August, for instance, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm Inc., a leading provider of handheld computers, began shipping its Palm VIIx device that contains built-in wireless access to the Internet, 8 megabytes of memory-four times that of previous-generation models-and a screen that displays 12 lines of data.

The Palm VIIx can access more than 450 Web-clipping applications created for handheld devices. Content providers put the applications on the Palm Web site, and device users download the material using free software. The data is written in HTML.

"A lot of the applications can be written for specific markets," says Jim Kruger, Palm director of product marketing. "Companies will be able to use the devices to look at real-time inventories and pricing, and sales people can do business on the road without having to run back to the office" to access their PCs.

While most of the Web-clipping applications are not tailored for B-to-B, mobile commerce designs will become prevalent as handheld devices become mainstream corporate products, Kruger predicts.

"We're in the early stages," he notes. "There still are issues of what can and can't be done with handheld devices. You can't instantaneously call up a picture on the screen, which is limiting. The telecommunications networks are slow, and you can't run a lot of data. People won't wait 30 seconds or a minute to view graphics."

But transmission speeds are quickening. Wireless networks, which typically operate with 9 kilobytes to 19 kilobytes of bandwidth, soon will be in the 128-kilobyte range, analysts say. That is expected to accelerate the demand for content delivery.

"Bandwidth is very slow today, but as it gets much faster, you will have a better user experience," says Andy Fox, chief executive officer of iConverse, a Waltham, Mass.-based provider of mobile applications and hosting services.

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