WAP (wireless application protocol) and other forms of m-commerce applications are being touted as the new revolutions in communications and e-commerce. The companies supporting it, however, are the same ones who brought us the Internet revolution; remember that? We were promised that e-commerce would dramatically change the way are we work, shop, and play. Has it? No. Will it? Possibly, but only when it is more convenient, efficient, and useful to shop the Internet than to use traditional means. This requires usability, reliability, and most of all, fast connections, to be better than what we are used to. If the Internet were as easy to surf as cable, for instance, e-commerce would be immensely more popular. However, developing the infrastructure to accomplish this is too costly and time consuming, as many upstart telecoms will attest to.
M-commerce does not have to end with the same fate, however. While the existing infrastructure is still too slow to support even WAP, it is much easier to upgrade, because there is no physical connection to the provider. If the telecom industry ever decides on a single digital wireless standard, then WAP will be much more effective. Also, 3G, the newest standard that supports XML, is being used in Japan, and will soon be in Europe. It’s not expected to hit the US until 2005, when we MIGHT have one digital wireless standard to support it.
Even when we have these standards, will it be used? A Jupiter survey in 2000 said 39% of Americans had no use for wireless communications in general. That’s 80 million people who will not be wanting m-commerce, and its assured that not every wireless user will be interested in m-commerce. However, companies are supporting the technology, in hopes it will catch on like it has in Europe and Asia.
The use of m-commerce in these countries is deceiving, however. The most popular use in Europe is SMS (short message service), which is simply a wireless IM, and rivals IM in popularity. The other main service is to check news, traffic, weather, stocks, and other updateable information. In fact, 47% of Europeans had a mobile phone in 2000, and 43% of European mobile phones are predicted to be WAP enabled by 2004 (General Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) Statistics). However, only 34.1% of Europeans have access to the Internet (ITC). In the US, mobile phone usage is also around 50%, but Internet accessibility is at 60% (ITC). In Europe, the m-commerce is a necessary tool because of the lack of Internet usage for traditional e-commerce. In the US, the need does not arise as frequently, because of the ability to access the Internet (and e-commerce) rather quickly and easily.
Japan and China are also forerunners in the m-commerce movement, but they also have a high ratio of mobile phones to PCs, so Internet access is more convenient over wireless transmissions. Also, the Chinese and Japanese alphabet have never been favorable to western-style keyboards, so VoiceXML and other forms of interaction, which facilitates to mobile phones, allows the users to access the Internet. (Their 3G standard doesn’t hurt either.)
So where does this leave m-commerce in the US? Basically, it will have to find niches until someone comes up with viable, marketable solutions for it. One of the most promising uses is to use m-commerce connections as electronic wallets. Some vendors have already started moving that direction. Palm and Verifone have collaborated on an effort that will allow Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) that run the Palm OS to use infrared technology to connect with Verifone in payment services. Credit card “smart” cards, once seen as the payment form of the future, will probably just be carriers for m commerce devices. Banks and financial institutions are turning away from such cards that contain information to linking mobile devices to their databases, as a more secure way to make payments. These payment options will allow payments for anything from vending machines and stores to “cash” transfers from one mobile device to someone else’s. Also, Bluetooth and other such standards are making promising steps towardsshort-range, LAN coverage for fast mobile data connections (up to 400Kbs, currently). This could be used for laptops in the workplace or school, or at mall-like settings. Also, Handspring’s PDA, Visor, which runs on a Palm OS, has a universal port that can support anything designed for it, including bar code scanners. So someday in the future, you may be shopping at your local mall LAN, scanning UPCs with your Visor, and downloading information on the product through Bluetooth.
As with most technologies today, the most current uses are found in the B2B (business to-business) sector. Many delivery companies with dynamic schedules are using PDAs to keep their workers out of the depot and on the road. Also, others find it convenient to arm their salespeople with PDAs linked to some sort of wireless EDI, in order for them to check inventory, make sales, and track sales all in a few simple clicks, instead of having to call, fill out paperwork, and all the other time-consuming tasks associated with product movement. The ability to track inventory and schedule shipments on the move, without having to plug in or call the office, has made vast improvements in many companies’ SCM (supply chain management), cutting inventory and shipping costs and providing quick ROIs.
As the technology emerges, so will the uses of m-commerce. As an example, Motorola has recently introduced a wind-up charger for its phones, providing mobile charging and increased range. This sort of ingenuity will pave the way for m-commerce, but don’t expect it to be of any consequence in the next 5 to 10 years.
John Mark Kennedy is currently a Senior at the University of Kentucky pursuing a degree in Descision Sciences and Information Systems. His e commerce interests include eCRM and supply chain management infrastructure.