Wireless as Cheap as Surfing the Internet?

SAN MATEO (05/15/2000) - I've written in this column, rather cynically, about so-called "free" products and services offered throughout the world of wireless technology -- your basic Palm giveaways, your not-so-free PCs, and your generic cell-phone rebate madness.

But the next free offering is really going to surprise you. And, it's really going to be free.

It may seem too early to start thinking about free wireless service, what with your $200 mobile-phone bills. But if things unfold the way they did on the Web, that's exactly what you'll be seeing in the next year.

With the exception of a relatively small access fee -- sometimes as low as nothing -- the Web is free. You pay a few bucks a month, and advertising does the rest. You thought those rotten banner ads were good for nothing? I say a small prayer for advertising every time I log on.

That will be the model for the future of wireless services, albeit with a twist. It's hard to imagine a full-sized, graphically pleasing advertisement popping up on a 1-by-1-inch mobile phone every time you check your stock quotes. However, you may be able to imagine when a walk down Fifth Avenue results in a series of promotional offers, vibrating your mobile phone or handheld whenever you are within 20 feet of a brick-and-mortar storefront.

You may have heard of this concept already, but have you thought about what it will do to your wireless bill? Eventually, there is no reason to think that advertising merchants won't significantly subsidize wireless service, reducing your bill to next to nothing. Isn't that the way the Internet works now?

But there will be an even more interesting phenomenon that takes place. The idea of wireless promotions gives smaller-goods providers or service providers a way to take advantage of the Internet. For instance, if a dry cleaner were to fire up a Web page and advertise its service all over the Internet, how much business do you think that would generate? That's right, exactly none.

But if that same business were able to shout out deals to customers as they pass by -- kind of like the guys that stand outside of restaurants -- wouldn't that be worth whatever a wireless carrier would ask of them? Bringing along businesses that depend on geography is the promise of the wireless Internet, which should never be confused with what we know today as the regular, plain old Internet.

While the Internet and the wireless Internet hold many things in common, they are two very different animals.

What are some other differences that you see between the Internet and the wireless Internet? Write to me at dan_briody@infoworld.com.

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