M is for mobile

"M-commerce" is coming, says wireless king Alain Rossmann, who already buys books with two clicks on his wireless phone.

Published January 31, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Sporting a screen about the size of a Post-It, low-powered by any measure and limited to operating within today's narrowband airwaves, the wireless phone wouldn't necessarily be your first choice as a Web-access device. Not unless you were Alain Rossmann, that is. Given his history of founding start-ups -- like digital video firm Radius, video compression pioneer C-Cube Microsystems -- and his chief's seat at early PDA company EO, Rossmann's credentials as a visionary thinker were already well-established by the time he started tinkering with the idea of building a "microbrowser" for phones in early 1995. Thinking out of the box was one thing, but conventional wisdom suggested that using a phone to browse the Web was, well, a little wacky. Still, the guy had just sold EO to AT&T for a tidy little sum. So let him play.

And play he did, while his small company, Unwired Planet, evolved into Phone.com -- now generally recognized as a major player in the boundless space between computing and telecommunications. It's a position the company has earned by developing and promulgating the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), the software layer that enables Web browsing on wireless phones in spite of the limited screen size, spotty connections, thin bandwidth and low processing power. Together with telecom heavyweights Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia -- the holy trinity of the wireless world -- Phone.com helped to form the WAP Forum a little over two years ago. And since then, just about every big name in telecommunications and computing has hurried to get on board. All of which means that nobody wonders anymore about whether the French engineer is off his nut. They just want to know what he's thinking about now.

The WAP club now includes over 150 members, representing some 95 percent of the world market for wireless handsets. That has to be gratifying. But does that mean you've won the standards war? Or just the first battle?

One correction: The club now includes 250 members. It's growing extremely fast. The number you're quoting is based on a snapshot taken back in September or October, which just goes to show how tremendous the momentum really is. There's no doubt in my mind we've won the standards war. When you have that many companies with that much power representing that much of the world market all agreeing on one way of doing things, that way is the way.

There are some people up in Redmond who continue to hold out hope that some permutation of Windows CE will become a contender.

Fine. Let them hang on to that hope. I would say the likelihood of that is very, very, very low. No single company in a carrier-dominated world is going to be able to dictate the standards. The reason 250 companies have lined up behind WAP is because it's a standard that belongs to everyone. Of course, we're center stage, which is a good place to be. It's always good to be the company that invents something everybody else adopts. But what we did was relinquish control so the standard could gain general acceptance. That's the kind of trade-off that businesses are faced with each and every day on the Internet. And making that decision is what propelled us to where we are today.

By extension, I take it you're saying you don't believe Microsoft would make a similar trade-off?

That's not what they do for a living. And there are other factors as well. One of the things that has made WAP so vibrant is that we've targeted the mass-market wireless phone -- a very unlikely device, frankly. Coming from a PC perspective, it looks like an extremely limited device. On the other hand, it's a magical device that over 1 billion people will carry two years from now. It also knows how to do voice -- and there's a lot of work being done to expand the voice capabilities WAP supports. What's more, it's a device that knows where it is -- with the network tracking you as you move around.

But what really makes a wireless phone interesting is that it's much more personal than your PC. It's with you and it's on all the time. It's in your pocket. And this world of very personal, very small devices is one that's foreign to Microsoft. Part of their difficulty is that Windows CD and CE are targeted at devices that are less constrained. And that just goes to show how difficult it is for Microsoft to shed its PC heritage.

Bringing Microsoft into the WAP fold was quite the coup for you. Still, being in bed with the praying mantis of the software industry must make for some sleepless nights.

Well, WAP is open. So anybody who agrees to abide by its bylaws is welcome. But that includes opening any patents you have, agreeing to never block the standard and doing a lot of things that can't be easy for Microsoft. Still, if you agree to all this -- which Microsoft has -- you're part of the club. And we're delighted because, frankly, it's better for Microsoft to be inside than for us to have to fight them.

Reports indicate that you expect to derive most of your revenue this year from the sale of WAP servers. But, with Nokia and Ericsson planning to roll out WAP servers of their own, do you foresee your emphasis shifting more to application development?

Yes. Today, we actually sell three types of products. We sell WAP servers, of course. More competition is coming, to be sure, but you're looking at a global marketplace that's so large that no single company could ever hope to own the whole of it. We're also successfully selling a service platform on top of WAP which delivers all the real-world features that carriers need. And then above that, we started supplying WAP applications about a year ago. We definitely believe that represents one of our greatest opportunities for the future. In fact, we're already enjoying a fair amount of success in Japan. We're one of only a handful of companies that have ever managed to sell big applications into the telecom space there. Hundreds of thousands of users are already using our personal information management calendar and address book.

And we're going to continue pursuing other such application opportunities aggressively. You may have heard that we just recently acquired a voice portal company. The main purpose is to enhance our application base with voice. One of the ways your phone is different from your PC is that your phone is primarily a voice device. And we actually see voice and WAP as flip sides of the same coin. Sometimes you want to hear about your calendar and sometimes you want to see it. So we're adding the voice dimension to an offering that's already proving very popular. And this again shows how the Net world is different from the PC world. There simply is no equivalent for this on the PC side.

Although, of course, voice capabilities are being added to PCs as well.

Naturally. But it's not the primary mode of operation. What I'm talking about is a little pocket device that you have in your hands when you're driving and you want to use voice commands to get at your Web data. The technology we've developed to help you do that is very impressive. You can do marvelous things by combining WAP and voice.

When do you think it will be possible to make the transition to more transaction-oriented applications that people can use to execute stock trades, pay bills and transfer funds?

We're actually seeing the first signs of that right now. Pricewaterhouse is shipping a full stock-trading application on WAP. And Amazon has a WAP-compliant order interface that costs me a lot of money already because every time I demo it, I end up buying a book. But I love that app because it embodies our vision for "m-commerce," which is what we call mobile commerce. Think of all the potential in that -- if you have an Amazon account, you're now able to buy a book with just two clicks on your phone.

Are there impediments in the current wireless infrastructure to deploying these kinds of applications?

You know, I wondered myself. But so far, Amazon hasn't hit any bumps in the road -- none whatsoever.

What do you see as being the killer app that will make WAP "must have" technology for the long haul?

You know, one of the things I learned about the Internet early on is that it doesn't really revolve around any single killer app. It's more like 100 killer apps. And that varies from one person to the next. I'm sure that for some portion of the population, Salon.com is a killer app. But then there are other people who are more focused on stocks. The Internet is more personal, and the contact points with individuals are constantly shifting.

What we've found is that e-mail and person-to-person messaging are by far the most popular apps in Japan, which is presently the most advanced market for our technology -- easily one and a half years ahead of the U.S. They're sending each other messages and replying PC-to-phone, phone-to-PC, phone-to-phone  you name it. The traffic is so heavy that we've had to aggressively upgrade all our servers over there to handle it all. In other parts of the world, we're finding that stocks and sports apps are what people are most attracted to. Some people would tell you that the ability to rebook flights and change itineraries is what's most important. And we're finding in Japan that games are also a very big deal.

What happens with the addition of GPS capabilities?

That's still about a year or two away, but it's going to be very big. Right now, the network knows where you are -- or at least what cell site you're in. So we already can create applications that leverage the fact that we know where you are within a half-mile radius. We know what city you're in and maybe even what block you're in. But with GPS, the phones will know exactly where you are. And that will revolutionize the types of applications we can deploy on a phone. Getting an exact location is an unbelievably powerful function. And I think we're just beginning to understand how you leverage that. But I assure you there's a lot more to it than simply delivering driving directions. We're already doing that.

The recurring theme in what you're saying seems to be that this technology is so fundamental that you really have no earthly idea of what people are going to do with it. People continue to surprise you.

Actually, I told my guys early in the life of the company that if we're not surprised by what we create, we're selling the company. Guess what? We're not selling.

By Mark Compton

Mark Compton monitors technology trends from a comfortable perch midway between the Silicon Valley and Oregon's Silicon Forest.

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