What went wrong with the mobile Web?

Futurists and industry analysts have long predicted the ascent of the mobile Web, in which people can traverse the Web using smart phones as easily and fruitfully as they can at their desktops. But almost three years after 3G networks became widely available, few are using it to access the Web with their phones.

Sure, some people use handheld devices to download ringtones and check e-mail — cellular carriers have been reporting dramatic increases in those sorts of non-Web activities for quite a while. And scanning public places such as airport terminals shows a fair number of mostly business users accessing the Web over 3G networks using PC cards in their laptops.

But browse the Web from your cell phone? “There’s no place to go but up,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis Inc.

Market research firm Compete Inc. quantified the failure of the mobile Web recently in a survey of mobile phone subscribers. The April survey of 910 people found that 37% of mobile subscribers had purchased ringtones and other content in the last year. Of those subscribers, only 20 per cent said they accessed the Web with their phones at least once a week.

“And these are people who are very savvy about using their phones,” said Miro Kazakoff, a wireless analyst at Boston-based Compete. “I’d be comfortable saying that, of the other 63 per cent, the number accessing the Web with their phones is in single-digit percentages.” A recent survey conducted by Ipsos MORI of nearly 1,000 U.K.-based consumers roughly mirrored Compete’s findings.

So why are so few people surfing the Web with their phones? And will we eventually enjoy the Web’s wealth of content or the powerful new-generation Web applications while we’re waiting for the train or in a restaurant. Or will we always wait till we get back to our desks?

What went wrong?

Kazakoff said the reason there is so little Web browsing with smart phones is simple: “The Internet experience on a handset is not where it needs to be for people to use it daily.”

And Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at NPD Group Inc. noted that “the experience compares poorly to the desktop or notebook.”

Here are some of the specific reasons the experts cited for the slow uptake of the mobile Web.

Poor Web browsers, small screens. Rubin noted that browsers on phones usually don’t display Web pages well, partly because they lack many built-in capabilities. In particular, most phone browsers can’t properly display sites that use technologies such as Javascript and AJAX.

“And common file types found on the Web like Flash or PDF aren’t often supported in mobile phone browsers,” Rubin said.

Small screens make that problem worse. Most smart-phone screens are 3 in. or less, making poorly rendered pages that much harder to read.

Network speeds. “Speeds just aren’t up to the task,” Rubin asserted. Current 3G speeds typically are in the 400Kbit/sec. to 700Kbit/sec. range, which is slower than most people are accustomed to with their home connections. Even worse, many smart phones, including the vaunted iPhone, don’t support full 3G service. The iPhone, for instance, supports only 2.5G speeds in the 200Kbit/sec. to 250Kbit/sec. range over AT&T Inc.’s EDGE network.

In the U.S., you can acquire by-the-byte pricing, but if you plan to use the Web over your cell phone frequently, you’ll be better off with a flat-rate plan. The problem is that those plans are expensive, as much as $60 a month with a two-year contract. While such prices can often be justified by mobile professionals who use PC Cards to bring 3G access to their laptops, they discourage everyday consumers who tend to engage in more recreational Web browsing. And, of course, poor displays and browsers make users that much more reluctant to spend the money.

“When pricing comes down to, say, $20 a month for data, you’ll see a much higher uptake,” Greengart said.

The walled garden. Many people claim that cellular service providers are discouraging Web browsing because they prefer to sell specific content instead of letting subscribers get their content wherever they want on the Web. In this “walled garden” approach, the carriers collect money from users for content as well as access.

For consumers, a big downside of walled gardens is that the available content often isn’t really unique.

“The core [walled garden] stuff is news and weather and whatnot that, realistically, you can pull down anywhere,” Greengart said. But, he added, the operators’ insistence on walled gardens has led them to discourage — through pricing plans and by offering phones with inadequate browsers — adoption of the open mobile Web.

“Walled gardens have impeded adoption of [mobile] broadband services,” Greengart said.Carrier concerns. A more understandable concern of cellular carriers, Kazakoff said, is that encouraging a more open Web experience on phones could lead to the proliferation of malicious software. Besides harming users, this also could gum up networks with unwanted traffic and increase support costs.

“If you layer that concern on top of the content [and revenue] issues, it’s easy to understand why carriers’ knee-jerk reaction is to hold on to as much control as possible,” he said. “Any lack of control [over access] is scary to the operators.”

Despite these problems, the experts agree that we’re approaching a time in which more people will regularly browse the Web with their phones. Helping to blaze the trail is Apple Inc.’s iPhone, whose Safari browser renders standard Web pages significantly better than other mobile browsers do, according to most reviewers.

“A year ago, if you asked people if they’d consider searching the Internet with their phone, they’d ask, ‘Can you do that?'” Greengart said. “Now, the answer would be, ‘Maybe I would if I had an iPhone.’ Other vendors will step up with phones that let users do that, too. The iPhone was a great proof of concept of the type of things you can do.” Added Kazakoff: “The iPhone is showing carriers the benefits of a less-controlled experience and high-usability devices.” That, in turn, will create a convergence of events that will lead to more mobile Web adoption, the experts say.

First, Apple competitors such as LG Electronics Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. are preparing to offer phones that, like iPhone, will have browsers and displays that will show Web pages clearly. The arrival of new devices like those, in turn, will lead to an increase in the number of Web sites that are designed for mobile browsers and to an increase in the number of Web applications that are tuned to the very act of being mobile, Rubin predicted.

“We’ll see information that’s relevant to where you may be at a given moment,” he said. “There are some mapping sites that already do that, and some interesting applications are coming” including ones that provide location-sensitive search capability.

An increase in the number of Web-savvy phones and applications will create a lot of momentum toward widespread adoption of the mobile Web, Rubin predicted.The final impediment will be the cellular carriers, Rubin said. On the one hand, they don’t want to give up potential walled-garden revenues. Nor do they want to support a wide variety of browsers. On the other hand, they need to attract the type of higher-paying subscribers that sophisticated Web applications can attract.

“To advance the marketplace and accommodate users who deliver high [revenues], they need to answer a demand for these kinds of services,” Rubin said. The task of cellular operators will be to find other avenues that can generate revenue without restricting what users can access.

Potentially, Sprint Nextel’s Xohm mobile WiMax service could force the issue, Rubin added. Sprint has said it won’t require long-term contracts and that it will provide a wide-open Web experience while charging less than the typical cost of 3G service and providing faster speeds.

“Strong competition is always a catalyst,” Rubin concluded.

David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

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