Caution: Mobile Content at Work

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Mobile cannot be confined; that goes against its very nature. It needs to be free to take any shape in order to find and empower users when and where they need it. But by virtue of its malleable nature, mobile is difficult to grasp and as a result, content providers—already cautious from scars garnered during the wild and wooly dotcom days—aren't so quick to chase what might seem like a PDA pipe dream.

It doesn't help that Wi-Fi—the flighty young ingénue of mobile content delivery— garners all the headlines with deals between cell phone and coffee superpowers that promise fast connectivity and caffeine on every block. In reality, even consumers willing to wait ten minutes for the privilege of paying four bucks for a latte find $30 a month fees for spotty coverage hard to swallow. But the truth is that, while Wi-Fi does play a role in the mobilizing of content and communication, a distinction between Wi-Fi and mobile must be made in order for mobile content to be taken seriously by a savvy and demanding mobile workforce.

Mobile should also not be limited to elaborate new phones and PDAs that sport keyboards and colorful displays. In fact, the PDA's great uncle laptop and second cousin cell phone both still bear the brunt of the actual mobile work getting done today. However, these young upstart multimedia devices are beginning to come into their own. And, if they can shed the half-baked stigma of Wi-Fi and never-quite-there Bluetooth, these devices [like the Sony Cliés my colleagues and I used to evaluate mobile content—see sidebars] might actually enable the next generation of mobile content for the enterprise.

That said: Don't get too excited just yet. Because, as Scott Smith at Gale so aptly put it, content producers are still saying: "Show me the business model."

It is true, content developers aren't tripping over themselves to pump out handheld- specific content. While certain niches flourish [see Miller's "Content Goes to the Doctor" in this issue], general business content has been slow to follow suit. Many of the big content players—like Dialog, ProQuest, and LexisNexis—don't have specific mobile offerings, though their products could, of course, be accessed if you have a subscription and your mobile device has Internet connectivity. But without having the content conceived of in the context of a 2"x2" screen, usability generally plummets.

Laying Down the Law
There are signs of life, however. Products like Westlaw Wireless clearly serve the needs of the legal vertical and are developed with small screen sizes and lower bandwidth limitations in mind. Imagine a courtroom setting where your opponent argues based on a case that rings a bell, but that you've not recently reviewed. If you've got Internet access, and a PDA, do a quick search via your Westlaw subscription, and voilà: you have the most recent decisions related to whatever precedent the argument is based on. Karyn Senden, technical product specialist at West (a Thomson Business) says they took an early foray into mobile not only because they believed attorneys would be among the most desirous of instant information, but because of forecasts that the mobile market would be exponentially larger than has actually come to pass.

However, the Westlaw service has experienced steady growth and, despite hurdles, they are still optimistic about wireless delivery. Senden says, "One of our biggest obstacles has been Wireless ISP coverage. But there have recently been a lot of universities that have put in Wireless; some even give incoming freshman a PDA device. All of this helps us." 

One way these types of implementations helps, according to Senden, is that "if you have a new graduate of a law school who has used Westlaw Wireless for some time and the graduate had an instance where she couldn't plug her laptop in, but could get what she needed through Wireless, she will eventually use her experience to influence the older attorneys in the firm."  

Function Follows Fun
Yet, as Senden points out, mobile content hasn't taken off nearly as well as analysts once predicted. However, it may be the case that, like many technology products, mobile content will follow in the footsteps of consumer and entertainment applications, where the buy-in is low and adoption rates are high. Ring-tones continue to be one of the most popular forms of mobile content and sports and entertainment lead the way in most-sought-after mobile information. Bruce H. Rogers, Forbes.com's VP of marketing says, "I think what often happens is that you have the edge of entertainment that leads technology. No one pays attention to the B2B component because it's not as sexy, but it's where you'll have the profit all the way around. These consumers have corporate budgets; they're not just hitting up mom and dad."

Andrew Fox, Summus' VP of strategic relationships, believes that entertainment will pave the way for business applications. "Consumers got very used to getting content through the Internet and people got familiar with the medium so that when you come to them in a business setting, they are also familiar with the value," Fox says. "Consumers will get a feeling for the value for mobile content and it will spill over into the business sector."

Summus came to the mobile content game through its background in video compression when they partnered with Qualcomm to develop a video application for Brew. Summus found, however, that carriers weren't ready to deliver video. "Nothing can happen in this marketplace without having the carrier involved and that," according to Fox "is one big difference between this model and the Internet model." One thing that Fox finds exciting about the mobile market is that "there has to be a business model—with mobile, you can't give it away for free like the early days of the Internet. There's a true revenue model and the people that survive will make a lot of money."

Dealing with the carriers led Fox to conclude that there was a market for middlemen between traditional content providers and the carriers who could reach desired end-users. "We are doing a variety of applications," says Fox, "but we are middleware, a platform provider." Summus licenses its BlueFuel platform to content owners who can then build an application and then make distribution deals with carriers. However, the company's predominant model is to build applications and then partner on a revenue split or license content then leverage their existing relationships with mobile carriers to distribute the content application.

At the beginning of the Iraq War, Summus partnered with the Associated Press to provide mobile news content to Brew-enabled devices. Summus built the application, licensed the content from AP, and then made distribution deals with Verizon and Alltel.

The middleman approach works for Forbes.com. When they launched their Forbes.com Wireless Alerts, the company opted not to deal directly with carriers and worked with SmartServe, which developed the platform to deliver their content via Brew and partnered with the carriers to deliver Forbes.com's content. According to Rogers, the company is doing "a lot of experimentation with mobile content." They are working with YellowPepper on a carrier-independent wireless content distribution using SMS technology, "which is pretty simple, but increasingly robust," says Rogers. "We're talking wireless, which is basically handsets; we're not really talking Wi-Fi yet. To a certain extent," says Rogers, "it remains to be seen whether we will need a partner in Wi-Fi, because it could be seen as just a way to get to the Web and if we publish to the Web, then you can get to us." Forbes.com's primary mobile content delivery system "is the WAP and Brew-enabled version of Forbes.com, which is a stock ticker, lookup, and alert service that is offered through the various carries… with the intended delivery on cell phones."

Neither Forbes.com nor Summus have been holding their breath waiting for Wi-Fi to take off. As Fox puts it, "There are orders of magnitude more phones than PDAs" and both see plenty of opportunity to deliver mobile content to these devices.

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