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What We Talk About When We Talk About Wireless

By Paul J. Mulligan

For the title of this essay, I must tip my hat to poet/author Raymond Carver. For finally getting around to writing it, I must tip my hat to Edward Snyder, senior analyst of wireless technologies for Chase H & Q (now known as J. P. Morgan H & Q).

Two weeks ago, I began the transition from covering online financial services to covering the wireless industry at eMarketer. It has been an interesting transition to say the least. Reading research report after research report, I soon discovered that there is a lot of ground to cover in the world of wireless; most of it is completely uncharted. Indeed, there is so much ground to cover that I have spent the better part of my first two weeks virtually paralyzed by one question: Where should I begin? Then, I read an essay by Mr. Snyder entitled "A Framework for the Wireless World." Within it, I found my answer: begin by belaboring the obvious.

From the market forecasts I have read, thus far, the obvious point in need of belaboring is that "mobility" and "wireless" are not synonymous. To quote Mr. Snyder: "When people buy cell phones, they are not purchasing telephony or data, they are buying mobility.... Telephony just happens to be the means by which we can remain mobile."

Many analysts point to the growing number of wireless subscriptions as proof positive that the cell phone is the internet access device of the future. After all, they state, just look at the numbers. In 2000, the number of cell phones sold worldwide far exceeded the combined number of computers, PDAs, and televisions sold. According to Chase H & Q, citing IDC data, wireless subscriptions will outnumber internet subscriptions by a 3:1 ratio from the years 2000 to 2002.



Still, not all wireless services lend themselves to mobility, particularly wireless data services like accessing the internet.

Telephony lends itself to mobility. I can use my cell phone to call ahead and say I am going to be five minutes late for a meeting while rushing down the street, while remaining mobile. But using my cell phone to make a purchase or a trade or to check my bank balance through the internet requires more of my attention. It requires me to become momentarily "immobile." When used for this purpose, my cell phone loses its status as a mobile device and instead becomes a portable device like a laptop or a PDA.

Portable devices have value, of course. Particularly, for users who often find themselves in remote locations. But portable devices are used out of necessity, not out of choice like mobile devices.

So, the next time you read an "m-commerce" forecast that supports itself by pointing to the number of cell phone purchases or wireless subscriptions in recent years, ask yourself this question: how many users make these purchases and subscriptions because they choose "mobility" and how many make them because they require portability?

Paul J. Mulligan wrote the eMarketer eInvesting Report, which examines the state of the online investment services industry and outlines the challenges and opportunities before it. eMail him with comments, questions, and suggestions at pmulligan@emarketer.com.

First published on BankersOnline.com 3/12/01

First published on 03/12/2001

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