RIM watch your back; mobile ASPs will vanish

Peter Gaucher, the program director of mobile product strategy at IBM Corp., said at the recent Mobile Insights conference that IBM was quite surprised at how many people are willing to use their thumbs to type, alluding to the relative success of the Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) Blackberry handhelds. Now IBM is rethinking the need for a keyboard on such devices. As you know, Big Blue manufactures the Palm as the WorkPad.

The logical conclusion may be that IBM licenses the competing Blackberry unit as Compaq Computer Corp. and Dell Computer Corp. do. But, according to Gaucher, IBM is developing its own handheld. This is a fact, not a rumor, but don't expect this product anytime soon. Gaucher added, "We haven't picked a direction yet, but we are working on it." If IBM can build a better Blackberry device, RIM has something to worry about.

Mobile ASPs. Talking about things to worry about: My guess is that in a few years, following consolidation in the ASP (application service provider) industry and an increased use of business-to-business wireless solutions, we'll see the major wireless network providers become the only mobile ASPs left. It makes sense that as technology advances and AT&T Corp., Sprint PCS Group., Verizon Communications Inc., and VoiceStream Wireless Corp. increasingly control the features and services on the wireless network, they'll tack on to the network infrastructure or build out hosting centers and run wireless b-to-b or b-to-c (business-to-consumer) service.

The proof is in the pudding. These network providers are about to control location-based services, as well as 3G (third-generation) broadband technology. Experts in particular wireless protocols will become less important as the industry moves with agonizing slowness toward some standard protocol. Midterm solutions will soon be offered with hardware that interprets multiple protocols. At that point, why should a large enterprise trust a smaller ASP service when a slick team from AT&T offers a direct pipe into the network they own? Plus, can a small ASP assure your company of five-9s QoS (quality of service) for your mission-critical applications? AT&T can.

Of course, when it comes to keeping the main pipe up and day-to-day service running, perhaps smaller, boutique vendors will be more responsive. But then again the big guys can write a check and get someone such as Unisys Corp. to do it for them.

Will mobile commerce fail? M-commerce, as in shopping and buying products, is by general consensus dead. Ticketing, travel, and stock quotes may be useful to some, but no content provider will be able to monetize it. It is already expected as part of the service to the customer.

So the companies that find a unique application that can be delivered only via a handheld will succeed. As will companies that understand their target market.

Marilyn Wilson, CEO at Surveyor, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., knows her target audience well. Wilson points out that the October 2000 census tells us that the total work force of women with 1-year-old babies is 3.7 million. A full 59 percent of all those women are working. A market worth pursuing?

Surveyor is just weeks away from launching the mobile version of a US$20-per-month service called SeeMyBaby. A desktop version was launched last month. Parents can see their children at the rate of one image every 1 to 10 seconds, depending on the connection from any Palm or Pocket PC device. Desktops will deliver full motion. Surveyor will charge $4.95 monthly for the remote service. Wilson also believes that smarter HR departments will twist the conservative arm of IT departments so that parents can access the site during working hours and so that the company can be known as family friendly. As Wilson points out: A video of your child could come from a day care center or your house.

Customized content that has "emotional" relevance goes beyond checking the kids. Small-business owners would be another relevant target for similar services. RestaurantPro, a commercial service for the restaurant industry expected to pilot in the second quarter, will allow owners to check in on portions of their restaurants from desktop and wireless devices.

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