Wireless' missing link

While hundreds of millions of investment dollars are flowing into wireless industry, most wireless companies are forgetting that customer experience in wireless is just not the same as on the Web.

Customer experience in wireless is not the same as on the Web

As hundreds of millions of investment dollars flow into the fast-growing wireless industry, most wireless companies seem to have forgotten the single most important factor in their success: the customer experience. Customers will use only those wireless devices and services that quickly and easily add some value to the customers' lives. Yet except for the everyday voice phone call, most wireless services today are slow, confusing, and frustrating for the average customer.

A good wireless customer experience involves much more than usability or interface design. The service needs to make sense within the constraints of wireless technology and small, handheld devices. The wireless feature must also provide a customer experience that is better than existing alternatives. For example, wireless Internet access in Japan is more convenient than wired (PC) Internet access because of low PC penetration and a variety of other cultural and economic factors.

Many wireless companies treat the wireless Internet as if it were just the Web, but on a cell phone. Sprint, for example, calls its wireless Internet service "the wireless Web." The truth is that the wireless Internet is nothing like the Web. Any wireless service that shovels a Web service onto the cell phone will not create a good customer experience.

With this in mind, customer experience in three areas -- content, e-commerce, community -- will be different on the wireless Internet from what they are on the Web.

Content is different on wireless devices

Some content providers view wireless as a new channel through which they can push their content. But wireless content is different from Web content, because of the wireless customer experience; it's difficult to read much text on the tiny, low-resolution screens of handheld wireless devices. Content like news and sports has not attracted many wireless users, since that content is easily available through non-wireless channels that provide a better customer experience.

Nevertheless, there have been some examples of wireless-specific content that customers are interested in receiving on their phone. In Japan, for example, one popular service is a one-dollar-per-month deal from Bandai that sends a new cartoon character to customers' i-mode screens every day. It now has over 700,000 subscribers. 2 Such a service wouldn't succeed on the Web -- charging a dollar a month to get a tiny graphic -- but wireless customers have been enthusiastic about it.

E-commerce is different on wireless devices

Wireless e-commerce, also known as mobile commerce or "m-commerce," will not succeed on a grand scale. The e-commerce customer experience is just too difficult on wireless devices. With tiny screens, no graphics, and poor text entry, wireless devices make most shopping and search features very difficult to use.

For example, on Amazon.com's wireless site, finding "Of Mice and Men" can require over 40 keystrokes using the search function, since the book isn't available through the WAP menu hierarchy. (Customers can discover the book's absence only by looking through each menu.) Customers who search using the keyword "mice," a mere 10 keystrokes, find five different versions of the book, ranging in price from US$3.55 to US$21.24. Comparing each version, however, requires looking through every product description, a process requiring many more keystrokes.

Certain kinds of products can succeed in wireless e-commerce. These will be products that satisfy one or more of these criteria:

  • limited choice
  • predictable availability
  • do not require much data entry to select

For example, the New York Times bestseller list meets all three criteria. It would be easy to buy any of the books on the list via a wireless device. (Whether customers would want to buy bestsellers from their cell phone is a different issue.) Tickets to popular entertainment events might be another such product.

Finally, even if wireless e-commerce meets the above criteria, it also requires that the cost of items be directly added to the phone bill; typing in a credit card number on a wireless device would ruin the customer experience.

Community is different on wireless device

Most online communities, like those on e-mail lists and Usenet groups, wouldn't work well if transferred directly to wireless. The small screens and limited text entry on wireless devices make it difficult for people to exchange meaningful amounts of information with other participants.

Nevertheless, wireless can add value to existing communities by allowing people to keep in touch when they are on the move. For example, teens in Norway send text messages to tell friends about parties and other social events. 3 (However, while text messaging using SMS is almost ubiquitous in Europe, it is rare in the U.S. -- an estimated 20 million short text messages per month are sent in North America, compared to over 1 billion a month in Germany alone.)

SMS in Europe is a good example of how wireless data usage can grow if it provides a good customer experience. Sending SMS messages from phones in Europe is as easy as typing in the message, selecting the recipient from your address book, and hitting "send" -- there is no need to dial into a wireless Internet service provider. A good customer experience, comprised of easy-to-use features and compelling functionality, has surely contributed to the dramatic increases in SMS usage on wireless phones in Europe -- an 800 percent increase in Finland in 1998 alone. 4

In the U. S., by contrast, most carriers do not support originating a text message on the phone at all (except for VoiceStream, which runs on the GSM standard common in Europe). Although not a carrier, another notable company is Upoc, the wireless service that allows U. S. customers to originate text messages from their phones, regardless of their carrier. (Full disclosure: Upoc is a Creative Good client.) Customers with WAP-enabled handsets can dial into a WAP browser and use an e-mail application to compose and send their message, but this is more complicated and expensive than sending a simple SMS message on a phone in Europe.