Over the past year, WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) has grabbed headlines as a standard that could turn cell phones into devices that deliver many services going beyond mobile calling and simple Internet browsing.
Even as the debate continues about how useful such services may be, if at all, several players are already experimenting with new applications for cell phones, ranging from location-sensitive alerts to provisions of free wireless services in exchange for advertising opportunities.
In several cases, these applications suggest that the "push" model for delivering data and information to mobile users - which did not take off in the computing arena - will be taken out for a spin on mobile phone platforms.
Coupons on the run
A New Jersey-based company called GeePS is exploring the concept of location-based wireless coupons for cell phone users, based on GPS (Global Positioning System). The GeePS technology, working in conjunction with wireless service providers and using consumer profiles kept by e-tailers, can send alerts to cell phone users about discount offers at nearby brick-and-mortar stores.
Oracle and MedicinePlanet.com are in partnership to offer a similar wireless service called m-health, where a user's phone would automatically alert the user to location-specific health advisories. Location-sensitive directories for finding stores, services, restaurants, and a slew of other offerings are also in the works.
Targeted advertising is also beginning to loom large for cell phone users. For example, Maryland's Spotcast Communications is offering free cellular services to users who are willing to listen to targeted voice advertisements delivered over a cell phone. The ads are targeted not only to what kind of user is on the phone, but at where that user is geographically.
Spotcast has already offered its service in Hong Kong, where wireless service providers licensed the Spotcast technology and, in some cases, offered four minutes of free calling to users willing to listen to 40 seconds of advertisements. A wireless service company can pick up advertising revenue this way.
Some other players in Europe have picked up on the same idea. Researchers at Strategy Analytics recently did a survey of 500 U.S. wireless subscribers and found that 45 percent of users would accept ads in exchange for free incoming calls.
The integration of text-to-speech technology with mobile phone use also has implications for how the push model may become more prevalent among cell phone users. For example, Envoy Networks offers a service that lets a user type in an e-mail message at a computer, then automatically broadcast the message as a voice message to a cell phone number, as a fax message, and more.
Annoyance or Opportunity?
Will cell phone users really want advertisements and alerts pushed to them on a constant basis, or will such schemes be perceived as annoying, just as push information was largely perceived as an annoyance on standard computing platforms?
The answer isn't clear yet, but Spotcast has had success with its push advertising model overseas, where mobile phone penetration is larger than it is in the United States, and there is no question that mobile information delivery is a rising force in the United States.
Researchers at the Yankee Group predict there will be 21.3 million mobile data users in the U.S. by the end of 2001.