What went wrong with the mobile Web?

Despite predictions, it's been a flop so far, but that's changing and the iPhone is paving the way

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.

Market research firm Compete quantified the failure of the mobile Web recently in a survey of mobile phone subscribers. The April survey of 910 people found that 37 percent of mobile subscribers had purchased ringtones and other content in the last year. Of those subscribers, only 20 percent 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 percent, 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.

Pricing. 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 US$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, US$20 a month for data, you'll see a much higher uptake," Greengart said.

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