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Vodafone and BT under threat from m-commerce upstarts

Mobile ISP room33 sets its sights on the UK, as report predicts such new companies could give wireless providers a run for their money

A new wireless portal, which will offer free online content and messaging, announced its UK launch on Thursday, even as a report emphasised the bright future ahead of such portals in the mobile-commerce (m-commerce) future.

room33, a so-called "mobile ISP" from Sweden's self-proclaimed wireless valley, offers consumers free access to online content and unified messaging services via a mobile phone. The company is currently searching for content partners, and plans to offer a range of information, transactional and entertainment services.

Content can be sent to mobiles using SMS or WAP.

Zaheed Haque, founder and chief executive of room33, believes that, despite the operators' own mobile portals, there will be plenty of room for independent players in the wireless world. "The telcos are great partners, not a threat," he says, "Users will want more choice [as the market develops] and we are facilitating this."

Companies such as Orange, BT Cellnet and Vodafone AirTouch have recently launched wireless portals aimed at their own subscribers, although users are free to connect to any service they like. And some experts say companies that create a strong mobile-portal brand will end up with the lion's share of mobile Internet users -- much the way Yahoo! or Excite have become top Web portals, even though they're not tied to any one ISP.

An Analysys report on m-commerce published this week points out that although mobile operators would ideally like to be the sole brand that consumers see when accessing mobile services, they will need to partner with specialist wireless portal providers, such as room33, to build a strong portal quickly.

David Wilkins, senior analyst at Analysys, believes that despite the strong market position of both the established wired portals and the mobile operators, the wireless world presents opportunities for new players to establish a significant presence. "If you think of an analogy with the wired world, there were a number of proprietary services that one would have expected to become obvious portals," he says, "But, in fact, companies like Yahoo! established themselves from a standing start."

Mobile subscribers are expected to surpass one billion by 2003; by then, research firm Analysys predicts the m-commerce market will be worth $12bn (£7.4bn).

Although room33's UK-specific portal doesn't go live for a couple of months -- a general English language version launched on Wednesday -- the company is acutely aware of how important it is to begin gaining mindshare in this increasingly competitive market. "We have to start making a lot of noise now to tell people we're here," says room33 vice president of technology, Mark Tierney.

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