Finland: Where the Wireless Are

Two young businesswomen stand on the corner of Mannerheimvagen and Bulevardi in this city's Center district, shoulders hunched against the cold, focused on their mobile phones. One is checking the times of a movie playing that night, while the other scrolls through text messages from a colleague in Germany.

This sight is becoming increasingly common in Finland, a nation that is the home of the booming wireless company, Nokia, and of a blooming field of startups working to capture their own piece of the Internet revolution: wireless applications.

The example of Nokia has led many investors to take an interest in Finnish startups. The wireless giant's stock has almost tripled this year, and its market cap of $203 billion comfortably bypasses BP Amoco's $189 billion. In December, Nokia predicted that its sales might rise as much as 40 percent next year.

In a population of 5 million, nearly 70 percent of all Finns have a mobile phone, and they are becoming accustomed to using those phones for everything from weather reports to banking. While the rest of the world is waiting on the evolution of the Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP, to roll out these services, many Finnish companies are offering mobile information services based on existing protocols.

The WAP effort, led by Nokia, Motorola and Swedish manufacturer Ericsson, is an industry venture to develop a common standard for delivering Web-like content to mobile phones. Nokia introduced the first WAP-compatible phones late last year, but widespread adoption in most of the world has yet to occur.

In Finland, however, a horde of young companies has already begun developing WAP services. Indeed, while the rest of the world waits for wireless applications, the Finns are busily rolling them out to the home market - a virtual focus group of five million that is happy to try the new services and report back on their usefulness.

"We use our own market as a test market," says Paivi Ropilo, global channel manager for Yomi Media, another Finnish firm developing wireless applications.

"Finns are very critical, and they can evaluate what we do."

The hope here is that when the WAP infrastructure is in place, the rest of the world will come looking for expertise in wireless applications. Already, Helsinki is starting to raise interest from the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo and other multinationals that have an interest in the proliferation of wireless devices.

"Twelve months ago we wouldn't imagine the companies we're talking to today," says Jari Ovaskainen, CEO of Iobox, a wireless applications company that recently raised $13 million in financing. "Finland is now the wireless country."

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