As we look at people using wireless technology, it's useful to examine their relationship with technology over time. Good developers are able to move beyond the fresh discovery of technology to its valuable application for popular and personal needs. Wireless technology has a special audience. To develop lasting wireless Internet technology, it's important to experience a mobile user's viewpoint and to know what's valued about the mobile wireless Internet.
We Are at the Beginning
It's a common mistake to assume that because people can use cell phones to browse the Internet, the wireless Internet is a consumer market and therefore you should build consumer web sites for phones. Not so. While it's true that the consumer market for voice cell phones is maturing, the Internet use of phones is in its infancy. When telecommunications advertising tells people to "come out of your homes and into the light" and "use your cell phone to surf the Internet," it's a recipe for disaster. For the consumer, the mobile experience is nothing like the desktop Internet experience. Nor is its purpose.
The Technology Adoption Curve
Wireless technology is no different from any other new technology that works its way onto the world stage. It starts crudely, finds some initial uses, and eventually becomes widespread. It's critical to know where you are with respect to the maturity of the technology. Understanding which stage technology is in tells you not only the components to use, but for whom you're building your technology and what services they want. At each level of technology, a different kind of person uses it. Most developers are being told to build products for an advanced consumer market. They don't realize that we're at the beginning of a curve, where there is the most room for great invention: Wireless Internet in the early 2000s is a hobbyist, youth, and special-case business market. This is when reputations and industries are born.
Don't confuse the consumer market for cell phone voice with the technology stage for wireless data. Our current position on the wireless Internet technology adoption curve is apparent in Figure 1. It's based on a line of thinkers from Everett Rogers, Geoffrey Moore, and Paul Saffo to David Liddle, who showed how technology develops in society. The difference in psychology of the buyers and the purpose of the technology changes significantly over time. Technology has a trajectory of innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and finally laggards. Liddle simplified this to explain that a technology is first proven experimentally, then justified economically in business use, and then established as a commodity with standards and cost reductions to become a consumer reality.
Figure 1 Wireless Internet technology adoption curve.
As technology matures, so does the audience for whom you build it. When the technology is new, the first audience you should build for is the hobbyist. Only these earliest experimenters will stand the pain of "cranking up a horseless carriage." When the technology finds its first application, then you need early adopters inside a business or government agency. Businesspeople will put up with noisy but high-capacity heavy-duty trucks that move cargo. It's up to technologists to demonstrate value. If they do, then a business can justify buying expensive engines and long-lasting tires, establishing fuel supply, building roads, writing its own maps, and crafting its own signs. Finally, for a mature market, the developer can build for a consumer who will enjoy multiple benefits of a fully defined, standardized, and pervasive technology such as the automobile industry. In this mature phase, many different businesses play a part to sustain a vibrant market. The shift of building for the hobbyist, then a business, and then a consumer is called "crossing the chasm," which has been studied carefully by Geoffrey Moore.
Entering the Market at the Right Point on the Curve
In the beginning, a technology appears to come and go before it explodes as a market. There have been countless starts of disruptive technologies. Disruptive technologies, well studied by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, can transform the ratios of labor, capital, materials, and information that make the products and services of a company. Many disruptive wireless technologies that vied to alter the marketplace value of industries are now vestiges of computer companies and telcos. For computers, handwriting recognition was thought to be the disruptive technology to give the advantage to users of mobile computing. The pioneer handheldsthe Go PenPoint™ and the Apple Newton™failed. General Magic forced their wireless communicator straight to the consumer market before solving the business requirements of wireless infrastructure and data billinga legacy to their ICRAS spin-off, which repositioned its handheld wireless technology to early business vertical markets.
To a developer, it makes sense to build first for the youthful, the hobbyist, and early business, not for the pragmatist or general consumer. If you try to rush ahead to the general consumer, acceptance is often denied. Consumers will complain strongly, as we hear about web phones with small screens, long waits to connect, and unsatisfactory content. The popular and profitable wireless market i-mode in Japan started out on the right foot with a model for a youthful, hobbyist market. As we read, i-mode is already moving across the technology adoption curve into the mainstream to become a valuable business asset of the wireless Internet.
An important strategy in the development of wireless technology is appreciating the shift in adoption from hobbyist to vertical market and finally to horizontal market applications. A vertical market is a dedicated business market. Vertical market applications first address very specific business needs for a particular company or industry. The applications provide a clear benefit through higher productivity or other competitive advantage. Over time, the technology is improved and the advantages are more generalized. Vertical markets often become horizontal markets. A horizontal market application crosses many vertical markets and is a general commodity. It's an inevitable trend for most technology as the business changes from high margin to high volume.
An example of this progression is the growth of the word processor markets. In the 1970s, companies built dedicated word processing systems for business. These were vertical markets. In the 1980s, the word processor became a horizontal market application that could run on any computer. Another example of vertical to horizontal progression comes from telecommunications. iDEN originally was a dispatch radio network. Technically, it still is an Enhanced Specialized Mobile Radio (ESMR), but it's now a popular WAN cellular standard, charted by the FCC like all the other subscriber cellular services.
Today in the United States, most industrial wireless applications serve vertical markets. An example is the customer processing when you return a rental car at an airport. Agents use wireless devices to verify and track package delivery after your signature is taken. Another vertical wireless market is dispatch management, which uses wireless devices to send field workers to assignments. Still another is law enforcement, where officials use wireless devices to record infractions and print tickets. Established wireless vendors aspire to address larger horizontal markets. A broad spectrum of business users can use wireless communications across many lines of business.
The transition to horizontal markets can occur when wireless communication is fairly inexpensive, broadly deployed, and easy to use, and once a large number of off-the-shelf applications are available. Japan is rapidly undergoing the transition to an early horizontal consumer wireless market.
With early technology, you have to accept that infrastructure is not developed. Without support, you should have no grand illusion that the world wants it. You are "ahead of your time" with respect to society's ability to accept early technology. You might have invented the automobile, but without gas stations and roads (you mean I have to invent those, too?) then it can't take off in any major way. In wireless, we don't even have good automobiles for the consumer. Hobbyists travel a wireless highway in need of development, and although they run out of gas (batteries) far too often, the hobbyists and not the consumers will tolerate it.
Recognizing early technology, you can construct local applications that appeal to the youth market, hobbyists, and vertical market business segments. As global standards and technology mature, time your readiness to leap to the next phase, which is the early consumer horizontal market. Consumers are ready in Japan, some are in Europe, but they won't be for a few years in the United States.