A Wireless Web Whirlwind

Just as many companies are beginning to get comfortable with new business opportunities made possible by investments in Web sites, the rise of wireless computing devices is about to change the economic rules of the game once again.

Leading-edge companies, from Ameritrade to Nasdaq, are now gearing up to leverage wireless networking technology to deliver tailored content to customers that does not require those customers to visit their Web sites. As a result, many of them are rethinking their Web-site strategies to accommodate changing customer habits.

"Traditionally, it has been that as long as you can get to a phone line you can do business on the Web ... [but] there's a lot of your day in which you can't get to a computer," said Mike Anderson, a spokesman for Ameritrade, in Omaha, Neb. Ameritrade recently launched a joint service with Sprint PCS to let users conduct trades over cell phones.

"Mobile devices are becoming more prominent than PCs, but these things do not make for a good Web-surfing experience," said Jill House, an analyst at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass.

Although most experts agree that Web sites are not likely to lose their relevance, the trend toward sending personalized data directly to wireless devices and enabling users to conduct transactions based on the data they receive has far-reaching implications for those sites.

Michael Saylor, president and CEO of data management vendor MicroStrategy, in Vienna, Va., said that this trend will lead to the "disintermediation" of Web sites. MicroStrategy last year unveiled a business unit called Strategy.com and signed up companies such as Ameritrade, Nasdaq, USA Today, and Earthlink, all of which plan to or already are providing content to wireless devices.

"What we're saying is, 'Let's harness the Web to let people subscribe to what they want to know and give us permission to tell them,' " Saylor said. "And let's not be constrained to the Web; let's send it out via e-mail or fax or pager, or even call them on the phone."

One major change the shift will bring about is in how Web sites generate revenue. Dependent on page views and click-throughs to create advertising revenue, sites are finding their business models are changing.

"It is a conundrum for us more than for the advertisers because we have to find a way over time to get paid for this information," said Terry Jones, president and CEO of Travelocity, an online travel site that intends to offer two-way pager service. "For a Web site that derives some revenues from ads, it's our problem, and we have to figure out the right model."

Depending on the type of content a site provides, many will be forced to go to a subscription model, charging customers for services that were free, Jones said. In addition, advertisements may be inserted into smaller spaces.

But receiving subsets of information, however relevant, isn't likely to replace the Web altogether.

"I don't think this will diminish the Web, but rather enhance it," said Alan Reiter, president of Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing, a consultancy in Chevy Chase, Md. "The future is in multilevels of access."

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