Wireless Web Access Will Be Vital

Consumers are accessing the Web from handheld computers or cellular phones in rapidly increasing numbers, and analysts say companies need to consider whether they want to take their Web sites wireless.

“If companies missed the Internet the first time around, they should be careful not to miss the wireless Web,” says Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in San Jose, Calif.

Wireless Web pioneers include news services and travel information sites, but financial services are appearing now, with e-commerce vendors hot on their trail. Online bookstores Amazon.com Inc. and Barnesandnoble.com LLC are among the first retailers to let handheld users order products.

While many electronic retailers are targeting the Palm VII platform, Harris Bankcorp Inc. in Chicago has started trials of wireless access to bank accounts from cellular phones. Users are able to check account balances, transfer funds between accounts and have financial alerts sent to them by e-mail or voice mail. “A lot of people are more comfortable with a phone than a PC,” says Charlie Piermarini, executive vice-president of electronic channels at Harris.

Bill Malloy, president and CEO of Internet grocery store Peapod Inc. in Skokie, Ill., said his company is developing wireless shopping capabilities for the Palm VII and later will offer access via cell phones.

Established Web sites need to prepare for the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), the emerging standard for wireless access from a cellular phone, says Elliott Hamilton, an analyst at The Strategis Group Inc. in Washington, D.C. “For any company that has a consumer-based Web site [where] consumers get any kind of information, it definitely makes sense to make this Web site WAP-friendly,” he says.

Consumer acceptance of the wireless Web is expected to precede widespread corporate adoption. But it may already be a valuable way to give employees access to time-sensitive data. Gerry Purdy, president and CEO of Mobile Insights Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., says he believes time-sensitive applications such as inventory-checking will precede widespread roll-out of wireless-enabled public Web sites.

Technology exists now that can automatically convert HTML pages into information that can be viewed from a cellular phone. But most experts agree that this isn’t a promising approach. Wireless users expect a different experience: no scrolling, easy click-through and a high degree of personalization. Creating and maintaining a wireless Web site will be a separate part of Web maintenance, says Dulaney.