Mobile-commerce leaves me yawning

The projections are compelling, the hype is effervescent and the potential is seductive, but I have not yet begun to lust after wireless technology.

Even wireless’ prominent offspring, mobile-commerce, finds me somewhat unimpressed.

Before I expound on my disinterest, it has to be said that respected research firms are eagerly foretelling huge growth for both wireless technology in general and m-com in particular.

Dataquest Inc. in San Jose, Calif., pegged worldwide mobile phone sales at 412.7 million units in 2000, a 46 per cent jump over the 1999 totals. IDC in Framingham, Mass., predicted last year that in 2001 all digital cellular/PCS handsets shipped in the world would be WAP-enabled, and by December of 2002 there will be more wireless subscribers capable of Internet access than wired Internet users. In IDC’s opinion, this means Web designers may target wireless users first, relegating their wired predecessors to back-of-mind status.

An even more impressive prediction comes from Gartner Inc. in Denver, which said that by 2010 electronic interaction between people will outpace face-to-face contact, by a factor of 10, for 70 per cent of the population in developed nations. The firm points to always-on/wearable devices as the enabler for this brave new world. Further, by 2007 more than 60 per cent of people aged 15 to 50 in the U.S. and the European Union will carry or wear a wireless device, with more than 75 per cent doing so by 2010, Gartner said.

It’s tough to argue with these predictions; these people, after all, know their jobs. But it is equally difficult to look around and see examples of this coming revolution. There are some current implementations – Oxford Properties Group Inc. in Toronto uses wireless RIM Blackberries to communicate with its maintenance staff, and Bell Canada now has technicians roaming the streets decked out in wearable PCs, and there are other examples – but a world in which we are constantly networked to everyone and everything seems far off.

In fact, research by A.T. Kearney Inc. in Chicago underscores the gap between vision and current-day reality. The firm reports that last summer one third of mobile phone users in eight studied countries intended to engage in mobile commerce transactions, but by January of this year only 12 per cent intended to do so.

The majority of mobile phone users have “a general lack of interest or perceived need to use their handsets for anything other than making phone calls. …Most people have not come to the WAP system because they have not been persuaded that the journey is worthwhile,” the report reads. (The complete report is available at

It is that lack of interest that may be the ultimate hurdle for wireless technology, because while much will be possible the one question that must be answered is: Will we want to use all this stuff? For example, you’re walking past a GAP store and your cell phone beeps. On its screen is a message saying that jeans are on sale. The store’s system knows that recently you bought a pair of bootleg-fit hip huggers and it wants you to know that, for today only, low rise slit capris are 10 per cent off.

On the upside, this is service to you, because otherwise you wouldn’t have known about this great deal. On the downside, it’s another piece of information you have to process in an already information-choked day. Imagine, for example, that as you walk through a mall half of the stores are beeping your cell phone at you.

While some may welcome this level of intrusion, for me it’s a little too much. My retail needs are amply served by stores and the occasional PC-based shopping excursion, I really don’t need to buy a chesterfield while I wait for the bus, or get news of a deal on cookware whilst puttering in the garden.

Wolchak ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist in Toronto and a former editor of ComputerWorld Canada.

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