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Dialing for content

Content providers are learning how to cram value onto a four-inch-square screen.

“This isn’t what I expected,” my brother Rob said sullenly when he got his new Web-enabled phone a couple of months ago. We were out for pizza and he was trying to find a good movie for us to see, and from the scrunch in his eyebrows I could tell he wasn’t getting very far. I left him squinting at his microbrowser and walked over to the newsstand. Sneaking a peek at the entertainment section of the local newspaper, I found a movie, checked the time, and went back to our table. He was still squinting. “I can’t get anywhere on this thing,” he growled.

I wasn’t surprised. Wireless has had a hard time making friends in the United States. With wireless companies marketing Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-enabled phones as a fast and easy connection to the wireless Web, it’s not surprising that users are squinting. The Web we’re used to seeing on a desktop is hard to find on a WAP phone.

For one thing, WAP doesn’t really give users a direct connection to the Net. In order for Web content to even make it to a WAP device, it has to barter access to the Net with a selective middleman–a WAP gateway–that translates protocols into a whole new wireless programming language. If the page you’re trying to visit is written in a WAP-unfriendly language, you probably can’t access it at all. And if you can? Instead of looking at the entire Web page, the content from that page is delivered to you four lines at a time.

That’s a tall order for wireless-content producers and publishers trying to make content work for a 2-inch-by-2-inch screen. And both are finding out that in order for users–my impatient brother, for example–to accept the miniscule screen size and cumbersome alphanumeric keypad, content has to be designed differently than before: personalized, a little bit at a time, with the user’s device constraints foremost in mind.

Greg Santoro, vice president of Internet and wireless services for Nextel Communications, says that as users start to define what kinds of content they want from a wireless device, developers are answering the call with technology that will deliver that content.

“Any application which is data input or output-intensive means you’ve got to have different ways to interact with the device to get over the keyboard limitations,” he says. “A lot of the application developers, when they first started developing in WAP, didn’t really understand the protocol, and they didn’t really understand what worked well. They were trying to take their application and basically just jam it into the phone–and frankly, it just worked like crap. What we are seeing lately are applications that are more interactive in nature and limit the amount of necessary input.”

Different device, different content

When it comes to content on a WAP device, users will tell you one thing: Keep it simple. Not only does long-winded content fall prey to abysmally low data-transfer rates, but users simply don’t want it. Unwanted information means more keying and scrolling. And while the drive for graphics-rich, content-heavy pages has found a happy home on the Web, channeling that same information to wireless devices mandates taking it out of the wireless user’s way. In order for users to want to read wireless content, it has to be stripped down to simple, straightforward, and well-organized pieces of information.

Structuring wireless content in salient categories, or lists, has become one of the primary methods of organizing sites and wireless pages. It gives users a clear-cut navigation path, by which they can choose exactly where to go. One way of doing this is by selectively extracting information from a Web page, or document, and delivering it in short, bulleted points that the user can read quickly. Surfnotes, a New York-based information solutions company that focuses on repurposing content for wireless devices, has designed an application that parses content from company intranets and the Internet, delivering it to wireless devices in customized lists that minimize the need for scrolling and keying in commands. The technology is based on “intelligent algorithms” that automatically extract the key facts or points in a document or Web page, organizing them in one easy-to-navigate document.

Says Lauren Williams, Surfnotes’ president: “We’ve looked at the processes that people use when they look for information on the Internet. Recent statistics say that 80 percent scan information. We provide them with the key points to get them there quicker. Summaries of that data just give a general idea, and they have the potential to be skewed or altered by the individual writing them. We never rewrite anything, we just take out the sentences that people aren’t going to care about.” In order for content to work on wireless devices, Williams says, it has to get at the essence of the information for which the user is searching, and in the process, save time and resources.

That was the idea of wireless devices all along: to make life easier and more convenient for the user. In order for wireless to appeal to the user, it must provide a service that the user can’t find elsewhere. For employees on the go, the ability to access only the corporate information that they need from a WAP phone is a huge advantage.

Strictly business, for now

While wireless data services may be hard-pressed to gain widespread acceptance in the consumer market, the business world is laying the groundwork for what’s to come. Surfnotes plans to go after the consumer market in 2001, but currently focuses on enterprise and wireless carrier services. Nextel will also concentrate on its business clients, at least until wireless takes hold in the consumer market–a process that could take between one and three years. According to Santoro, the most effective applications on the market today are showing up in the areas of field sales, field services, and fleet management.

PhoneOnline.com, based in Knoxville, Tenn., was a pioneer in wireless-data services for corporations. According to CEO Joe Hitt, wireless services become a solution for corporations when they save workers time and expense. The company got its start developing an application for Landstar, a trucking company with a national network of business-capacity owners. Using PhoneOnline’s BlueMoon application, Landstar’s drivers can search for loads, pick-ups, costs, and pay rates using their wireless phones.

“One of the things we decided was that the existing Web content is not designed for a WAP phone or other handset device,” Hitt says. “It has images, bars on the side, and lots and lots of content. It doesn’t really apply itself to a 2-inch-by-2-inch or 2-inch-by-3-inch screen. We provide the framework–menus, tags, and an XML base–so users can access back-end information from a redesigned front end.”

BlueMoon’s developers kept the end-user foremost in mind throughout the design process, Hitt says. “The user may not be an expert, or a power user of the device, so we tried to stay away from frameworks where the user has to install a lot of software, or perform complex functions. The idea was to stick with a thin-client application,” says Hitt. “We also had to keep in mind that the user does not want to type too much, so we’ve created ways in which the user can drill down to the information.” For example, one BlueMoon shortcut allows users to search for a city by typing in only the first letter of the city, then scrolling and selecting from a list, rather than having to type in the full name.

Redesigning the presentation of content from a company intranet means reformatting a limited amount of information for a new medium–an easier job when you know the end-user, and what he or she wants. Hooking users up to the Web is a different story, one that means breaking the fetters of wireless handsets and paving new paths to the Web for true mobile access.

Make it personal

Finding content on the Web via a WAP-enabled phone is no walk in the park. Nextel sent me a review model of its i1000plus WAP-enabled phone to try out for this story. I carried it home that very first day, thrilled at the thought of surfing the Web from a tiny cell phone. Every road I tried to travel led to a dead end, however–the most common response to my commands being, “Web error, contact service provider.”

Accessing traditional content on your handset–such as the first three lines of a top news story from The New York Times, or one of MSN Mobile’s shopping sites–is fairly straightforward. But finding the obscure and remote information that makes the Web so powerful is much more difficult. While a desktop connection to the Web can pack sites with content for every user, a handset is a personal device that can’t afford to burden the user with such comprehensive coverage.

Customizing content specifically for the end-user–or better yet, allowing the user to personalize his or her content–is a growing trend within the industry. San Francisco-based Clickmarks Inc. has developed an application–the Clickmarks Portal Platform–that does just that. Users select exactly the content they want to access from their wireless device–as specific as a link to your favorite site–from their desktop computers. For corporate clients, employees use the Clickmarks Corporate Portal Platform to select specific links or content from the intranet to take home or on the go.

“Given that it’s costly, given that you have screen size limitations, and given that it’s slow, there is no way that people will sit and look at standard pages,” says Rizwan Tufail, co-founder and vice president of marketing for Clickmarks. “They want complete control over what they see, because they are paying for it. Users are looking for information on their wireless handsets that they need right then and there.” Users seem to like what they see: The application earned the company an award for Best Business Application at Internet World Fall 2000.

Clickmarks Portal Platform is scheduled to be released to consumers sometime this year. In the interim, Clickmarks provides a showcase version of its software on its Web site. Users customize their content from a “personal habitat” by dragging links from anywhere on the Web, then access the content from their WAP phones.

As long as users can access news more quickly by grabbing a paper from the newsstand, perform a given function more easily on a PC, or communicate faster by calling rather than e-mailing, they will not be drawn to wireless data services. Wireless services such as Clickmarks’, which channel personalized content to the user through a convenient handheld device, will shape the wireless revolution.

Get ready, get set …

Wireless may be getting off to a slow start, but that’s not stopping the wireless world from gearing up for the revolution. In most cases, the technology is not yet in place, but wireless companies are busy developing programs and applications ahead of their time, positioning themselves to reap the benefits when the market blossoms.

Mobilehomer.com has pioneered a site for WAP devices based on the Global Positioning System (GPS), even though GPS technology is not yet available for WAP phones. Mobilehomer.com does what many wireless companies are doing today: providing a service based on current technology, with a steady eye on the future. Users can log on to Mobilehomer.com and record their whereabouts when they’re away from home. That way, family members and friends can check on their loved ones, sparing them the costly air time involved in making multiple cell-phone calls.

Cinema Electric is developing a site for wireless devices that will beam short, personalized films to users, even though streaming video is not yet feasible for U.S. phones. One way of doing that is to compress the films enough so that they can be downloaded rather than streamed. Users can send the films via e-mail–one film on the site is entitled, “You said you’d call”–or they can receive the entertaining clips daily for their own enjoyment.

“We are developing a new cinema that is worth having delivered to your wireless device every day,” says Jim Robinson, Cinema Electric’s CEO. “For example, a woman driving in her car can let her child watch an educational movie about geography. All of these short movies will be part of a collection that users can share with others.” Robinson admits that the company is nine to 12 months away from realizing the potential of wireless video, but he’s confident that when the technology is in place, it will be a big hit with WAP users. “Everyone is personalizing their device; that’s really the trend we are seeing. This is another way to do that,” he says.

That’s a trend that should excite my filmmaker brother. It’s just going to take a little bit of faith, and patience. Hitt best sums up the reality of Web telephony: “Everybody kind of jumped the gun on the marketing thing. It is coming very quickly, people just need to position themselves for when it does take off.”

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