E-commerce on the fly

Computerworld (U.S.)

Imagine this: You’re walking by a pizza shop, and your cell phone rings. No, it’s not your mom calling to tell you to remember to wear a sweater – it’s the pizza shop calling to offer you a coupon for $2 off a large pepperoni pizza. Or what about this: Your pharmacy sends you a text message telling you that you’re about to run out of the medication you usually take and asks you if you want a refill. If you click “yes,” the pharmacist will get your prescription ready and you can pick it up later or have the pharmacy deliver it to you.

Or this: You’re having lunch with a good friend, and you mention to her that you desperately need to see a dentist. She tells you that her dentist, Dr. Goodteeth, is the greatest. Trusting her advice, you whip out your handheld device and make an appointment on the spot.

All of those scenarios, which involve mobile commerce, or m-commerce, will be possible in the next several years, according to Jaclyn Easton, the Van Nuys, Calif.-based author of Going Wireless: Transform Your Business With Mobile Technology (HarperBusiness, 2002).

“Mobile commerce is the use of wireless (devices) to facilitate the sale of goods or services, anytime, anywhere,” she says. Although m-commerce has been touted as the best thing since, well, e-commerce, it just hasn’t taken off the way experts thought it would in North America.

The reason: weaknesses in interoperability, usability, security and privacy, according to Norman Sadeh, a professor and director of the Mobile Commerce Lab at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh.

Sadeh says these issues must be resolved by standards bodies before wireless devices replace our wallets and credit cards and give us access to intelligent assistants capable of anticipating many of our needs and desires, such as automatically arranging for taxis to pick us up after business meetings.

One such organization is the cross-industry Mobile Payment Forum in Wakefield, Mass. Billing itself as the bridge between the mobile and financial industries, the forum is working to create a foundation for secure, standardized and authenticated mobile payments that encompasses all types of transactions.

The Mobile Payment Forum is focusing on payment card transactions but is also addressing key issues such as interoperability passwords, cardholder authentication and encryption methods.

The Mobile Commerce Lab at Carnegie Mellon is developing a prototype Semantic Web environment, called MyCampus, for context-aware mobile services for enhancing everyday campus life. The Semantic Web would enable machines to make more sense of the Web so the Web in turn would be more useful for humans. The service can be accessed via handheld over the university’s wireless LAN (WLAN).

The MyCampus environment revolves around a growing collection of customizable agents capable of semi-automatically discovering and accessing intranet and Internet services as they help users carry out tasks like planning an evening out, organizing a study group or looking for a place to eat, Sadeh says.

The lab is moving beyond the relatively simple “infotainment” services now offered by the mobile Internet to a variety of mobile applications and services that will assist users in time-critical, goal-driven tasks, like allowing a professor’s assistant to schedule activities in the professor’s calendar for a Monday using his own handheld device, Sadeh says.

But, he notes, that will require overcoming the inherent I/O limitations of mobile devices through higher degrees of automation and the development of services that understand the context within which their users operate – for example, their locations, the activities they are engaged in, who their friends and colleagues are, and a number of other contextual attributes and preferences.

Sadeh says the Mobile Commerce Lab has already developed a “restaurant concierge,” an assistant that can give a user suggestions on where to eat based on information such as his food preferences, the amount of time he has before his next meeting or class, his location on campus and the weather.

Adam Zawel, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston, says m-commerce purchases haven’t yet taken off because wireless is an inferior medium over which to make these types of purchases.

However, Zawel says that if the interface improves so that it’s almost as easy to click through on a wireless phone as it is to make the purchase over a PC, people will be more willing to do so. He says improvements in network speed and latency will help bring about this change, but the main improvement will come from application design.

Zawel explains that when phones have better display capabilities and content providers spend more time developing the necessary applications, use of wireless devices for m-commerce will take off, with remote wireless purchases reaching US$4.5 billion annually by 2006.

Once the concerns surrounding m-commerce are worked out, it may just become, in the words of Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, “the most fantastic thing that a time-starved world has ever seen.”