A billion cell phone surfers by 2003?

LONDON -- Phone.com, the U.S.-based softwaredeveloper for wireless devices, expects more than half theworld's predicted one billion mobile phone subscribers in 2003to be connected to the Internet, a senior executive said.

LONDON -- Phone.com, the U.S.-based software developer for wireless devices, expects more than half the world's predicted one billion mobile phone subscribers in 2003 to be connected to the Internet, a senior executive said.

The Nasdaq-listed group, whose stock has surged more than 700 percent since launching in June, expects Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) phones to start shipping in serious volumes in the second quarter of next year, said Malcolm Bird, the company's Managing Director and Vice President, Europe.

"The millions (of WAP phone unit sales) will come in the first and second quarter of next year," he told Reuters in an interview.

Many industry forecasts expect mobile phone subscriptions globally to hit the one billion mark in 2003, but some have forecast that the Internet-linked share of the total will be more modest.

Formerly Unwired Planet, Phone.com was a driving force behind WAP -- the main software handshake to link cellphones to the Internet -- and has become a rare dominant U.S. player in an industry where European groups are seen as leaders.

The WAP cellphone experience should be simpler than surfing on a personal computer. "We're hoping many users won't ever know they were on the Internet," said Bird.

Building on a "thin client" model, where users need only lightweight equipment to handle information on a remote, networked system, Phone.com's prime goal is to generate sales of its server equipment.

It has stimulated the market through the royalty-free distribution of a microbrowser -- the software engine for a cellphone to navigate the Net -- and it is distributing a wireless portal or Web gateway for operators to brand in their own names.

"The browser is a profitable business but not the main revenue-generator," Bird said.

Experience counts
Phone.com's customers currently total about 46 mobile operators, or 10 percent of the world's operators, through which it claims to reach 40 percent of world subscribers, and Bird said it aimed to retain a dominant position in future.

Just under half of its current commercial relationships are in the trial phase.

Bird said the loss-making company, which has been developing mobile phone Internet access technology since 1995 -- aims to capitalize on its "first-mover advantage" by having already experienced the technology pitfalls that newcomers encounter.

Global cellphone leaders like Nokia and Ericsson have licensed Phone.com's browser for the U.S. market although he said they are developing their own for Europe, where Phone.com competes with them.

Infrastructure manufacturers including Siemens, Alcatel, Sema and Motorola are reselling Phone.com products -- which Bird said should position the company well for future network upgrades.