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Is the Internet finally coming of age?

Mon, 02/02/2004 - 7:38am

Ern Worthman, Technology and Editorial Director

Shortly after this Christmas season ended I was watching one of those faux-news, all hype consumer networks, like CNN or FNN, or CNBC or something like that and they played a story that caught my attention. It was on of those spikes that you see from time to time that lends credibility to the claims pundits make about the Internet being the next great vehicle for interstellar commerce.

The snippet was that the 2003 Christmas season was the first season where Internet purchasing outpaced brick and mortar sales, in dollar volume. Well, hype about the Internet isn't new. We here it all the time. IMHO it is one of those places where you believe half of what you see and none of what you hear, regardless of it's maturity level.

One thing I like about our industry is that we're a technologically savvy bunch and can separate the technological wheat from the chaff. In this case, an anomaly like this that measures hard numbers, is the occasional perturbation that supports one or more Internet validation theories. The theory intimated here, Internet supporters argue, is that the public at large is getting comfortable with Internet purchasing, therefore, the intimidation level is gone and the comfort level has set in. They further argue that it is quite possible that 2004 will be the year the Internet really goes mainstream (There are a number of reports that have come out, lately, saying the Internet is reaching some level of maturity, as well. I don't have enough white space to list URL's or give the report names, but they turn up readily with a search that includes the key words "Internet", "maturity" and "of age").

Well, this is one issue where I finally agree with the Internet visionaries. However, whether I agree or disagree is immaterial. What is material is that the wireless industry needs to be sure they have their nose to the wind on this one. If the Internet is going to be a significant medium for commerce, and untethered communications is the battle cry of the 21st century, opportunities for connecting to the Internet, wirelessly, are going to dwarf the dot.com boom of the late 1990s.

Wireless access using Wi-Fi is one of the, if not the, fastest growing sectors of the wireless industry. And the interface is the Internet. FierceWireless (http://www.fiercewireless.com/topics/wifi.html) quotes "The Wi-Fi industry is arguably the hottest sector in wireless — and certainly one of the fastest growing." Instat/MDR (http://www.instat.com/press.asp?Sku=IN030845WN&ID=849) reports "The emergence of new standards will result in a dynamic rate of growth for Fixed Wireless Broadband," with total worldwide fixed wireless broadband equipment revenues to go from just over $500 million for 2003 to over $1.2 billion by 2007.

Furthermore, there isn't any competition! But there will be. Business hungry companies like Gateway and HP have no qualms about venturing into near-technology, familiar peripheral areas if they smell opportunity. Gateway already decided they should sell large-screen plasma TVs for example. While this isn't wireless, it is a sign that they sense this is an area they feel they can generate dollars. And it's no secret that Microsoft is hot on wireless access.

The signs really are everywhere. The other day I had a contractor come to my house to talk about doing some work. He noticed I had a 802.11 wireless access port and I let him hook up (with his laptop and Wi-Fi card) through my router, via the Internet and his VPN, to get price and timing data for products that I was interested in. And, I've got a friend who is a real estate broker. He takes clients to the nearest Bigbuck/Capri/Seattles Best coffee shop to up and download contracts, comps, loan rates, and other related real estate data, even submit contracts — on the spot, via the Internet.

Wireless Internet gaming is another hot topic. I see kids at airports using hot spots to on-line game. The list is pretty much endless — and the backbone is broadband wireless Internet access.

Well, sounds exciting, doesn't it. But like all geese that lay golden eggs, there is a downside (like, there are never enough geese or golden eggs).

One of the spoils is the fact that both the wireless infrastructure and the Internet aren't free. Someone has to foot the bill. Up until now, for the most part, it has been the provider — sucking it up in the name of the cost of doing business. But as the technology proliferates, that model is going to change. The major issue here is the price point the consumer is willing to pay. Take Wi-Fi for example. In some places, Wi-Fi Internet access is free, in other places it's not. And, business travelers are more likely to pay for Internet access than consumers.

Another major issue is the marked lack of compatibility among technologies — GSM, PCS, TDMA, CDMA, HALs, MAC layers — we all know the drill. Incompatibility among service providers is also an issue. My laptop's wireless application lists at least a dozen different Wi-Fi providers. I see them all but can't access some of them. And everyone I know has similar stories.

I'd like to think someone can simply wave a magic wand and these issues will go away. But the fact is that there is a lot at stake. Some of these issues will resolve themselves, either by economies of scale or by the guy with the most toys wins scenario. But there is a lot of hesitancy by a lot of players. And, I can understand this because there is a lot at stake. But unfortunately, this is going to delay the ubiquitous, inexpensive untethered anytime, anywhere, anyway seamless layer that will make wireless interconnect and the Internet the subliminal and intuitive link that connects the world.

Is the Internet coming of age? Yes, but there are still a lot of peripheral wrinkles that need ironing out.

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