The enterprise will have little part in driving the success of mobile Internet

Manufacturers of mobile devices are busily enabling many of their offerings to be Internet-ready, or are working to enhance the surfing capabilities that are already offered on them. It seems like a great idea, being able to surf the ‘net on the same device you use for a phone conversation and which can slide easily into your coat pocket.

In this scenario, mobile workers are able to… well, let’s see…check what the weather is going to be like this afternoon; make sure last night’s hockey score hasn’t changed since they heard the result on the car radio an hour earlier; and, well…

The point is that surfing the Internet on a cell phone will never be anywhere near the robust experience it is on a PC. Only a limited number of pre-chosen sites are available to be accessed. Obviously, screen sizes are microscopic when compared to the 14- to 19-inch monitors that many people use at their desks. And the slow speeds of wireless networks don’t do much to make users want to turn to such devices when they want to surf.

No one would ever accuse the vendors of not realizing these limitations, and of not knowing what the key selling point here is: the convenience of being able to find basic information from just about any location. What hasn’t become clear to everyone, but in all likelihood will in the year ahead, is what market is going to offer this capability the biggest chance of making it a success.

That market is clearly not the enterprise one, for a number of reasons. One is quite simply a monetary issue. Mobile devices without Internet capabilities cost less than one with Internet capabilities. Organizations, especially penny-pinching ones in the mid-size market, would not opt to buy the former type of device unless it was absolutely necessary that their workers needed it. And given the limited number of sites that can currently be accessed, and the generic type of information that those sites largely offer, it seems doubtful that such firms would bite on this bait.

Another prohibiting factor to acceptance on the enterprise side is that many employers simply won’t want their staffs having such capabilities. Checking weather reports and sports scores is just one more potential distraction for employees to indulge in when they don’t feel like working.

Yet another barrier to enterprise penetration is the fact that most employees who truly need Internet access on the road already have it, through increasingly lightweight and powerful laptop computers. Granted, cell phones are less cumbersome and could be used to surf the Internet in nooks and crannies too small even for laptops (like while driving a car). When weighed against the higher cost and limited capabilities, however, it should be easy for corporate decision makers to turn their thumbs down on such a purchasing option.

No, the market that will have the best chance of driving this idea to success is, like many other mobile brainstorms, is the consumer market. As surely as IT department heads will say, “Thanks, but no thanks” to the mobile Internet, teenagers will rave about this newfound capability to their friends at the neighbourhood mall.

Whether anyone really has a need to check their stocks or read about the latest fortunes of the Spice Girls by way of their cell phone is largely irrelevant. To generalize a bit, our society loves to play with gadgets and is more times than not willing to pay for whatever enticement is marketed well enough towards us.

It is this fact that should steer the mobile communications industry’s efforts in this space towards the consumer market in 2001, and away from the more cost-conscious corporate sector.