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A case of delayed gratification

Globe and Mail Update

AMSTERDAM — The mobile Web has been heralded as the next frontier of the digital world, where users will be able to surf the Internet on handhelds exactly the way they can on a computer. The reality, however, is something quite different.

Most users see the mobile Web as a novelty, and not a necessity. They face frustratingly slow load times and expensive data charges when they navigate to feature-rich pages that, by comparison, pop up in an instant on their PCs.

To complicate things further, users have their choice of hundreds of different mobile devices, two major operating systems, 40 different browsers and four mobile Web platforms.

“The mobile Web is fraught with user-experience challenges,” says a 2007 Forrester Research report.

“Sites are difficult to find, usability of both devices and sites is poor, and access is costly.”

Yet Vidya Lakshmipathy, the author of the Forrester report, says there's still hope.

“Despite these challenges, the mobile Web has potential: It can provide contextually relevant information and services to users any time, anywhere – something no other channel can beat,” she says.

Nevertheless, after years of promises and billions of dollars in investment, handset makers, telcoms and Internet groups are still scrambling to get it right.

At this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, big players such as Nokia Corp. and Microsoft Corp. – and outsiders such as Google Inc. – are unveiling new operating systems, platforms and features that try to capitalize on the potential of the mobile Web.

And although the battle is just heating up, long-time industry heavyweights are learning lessons from a disruptive device that's barely eight months old – Apple Inc.'s iPhone.

The biggest lesson? To keep things simple.

“We invited Apple into the market with a mediocre connective device because we overwhelmed users with complexity,” Jens Schulte-Bockum, director of terminals for Vodafone Group PLC's global marketing division, told an audience at Nokia's World Developer's Conference in Amsterdam last December.

“We need to declutter.”

It's a wise strategy. Part of the appeal of Apple's “mediocre connective device” is that Web pages look like Web pages on it, experts say.

Conversely, the poor perception of the mobile Web lies mostly in users' failed expectations of being able to take their computer desktops with them, says Bill Buxton, a principal scientist with Microsoft and an associate professor at University of Toronto.

“The more tools you add to a Swiss army knife, the more useless it becomes,” says Prof. Buxton, author of Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design.

“I think the mobile Web is a success, though not in the ways we would think,” Prof. Buxton observes.

“The navigation function, for example, works, and there are services I've used in Britain that give me warning about traffic jams up ahead. Parents can also track kids through their phones.”

Still, he acknowledges there are some hurdles to overcome, including things as basic as finding the mobile link on a company's main website (The Globe and Mail is no exception. Our mobile address, by the way, is http://theglobeandmail.mobi).

Google, like Apple, sees opportunity in simplifying protocols. The search giant has partnered with an impressive group of companies to develop a competing operating system to Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6 and Nokia's Symbian.

Called Android, the Linux-based operating system is open source, and the Google-led alliance is betting the Linux community will quickly develop applications to enhance users' mobile experience.

By going the open-source route, Google hopes to hurdle many of the barriers to innovation it says are created by carriers and handset makers.

That's not to say the handset makers have given up. Taking a bite from Apple's recipe, Finnish mobile maker Nokia, which accounts for 50 per cent of the market in Europe, is branching out into software with Ovi.

Nokia launched the platform this week and says it seamlessly unites the digital trinity of Web, phone and PC, and allows users to shift and access content from one to the other.

Special to The Globe and Mail

76 — The percentage of U.S. households with at least one mobile phone.

11 — The percentage of phone owners who access the mobile Web.

40 — The percentage of mobile Web users who say access is too expensive.

51 — The percentage of non-mobile Web users who say they see no value in the channel.

25 — The number of mobile Web page formats Yahoo had to design for the 2006 FIFA World Cup

40 — The number of different mobile browsers in use globally.

3 to 4 — The number of times more likely younger mobile users are than older consumers to send text or picture messages, download content, or access the mobile Web.

Source: What's Wrong With The Mobile Web? 2007 Forrester Research

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