In Wireless World, Content Separates Web Winners

SAN MATEO (04/10/2000) - Imagine if e-mail was the only thing to emerge from the creation of the Internet. If this thing that we know as the World Wide Web (doesn't that sound archaic already?) had never been invented, the Internet would have turned out to be just a cool way to send notes back and forth -- sort of a 21st century carrier pigeon.

But the Web was invented, and it saved the Internet from becoming just another communications tool and transformed it into a dynamic information repository where people could not only find things, but could get things done. All of that is thanks to almighty "content," the generic term we in the computer industry use to refer to "stuff." It's content -- news and sports scores and stock quotes and recipes and so on -- that continues to bring millions of people to the Web. It is the same content that will drive the adoption and proliferation of wireless technologies.

Don't get me wrong; communications tools are great, and you can actually get some things done with them. For instance, I can order a pizza on my cell phone and have it waiting at my door when I get home. But a wireless device becomes more than a communications tool when it has access to content, and surprisingly, it's the content providers that are holding the cards when it comes to the future of wireless.

Take the Zagat Survey, for example. Everyone's favorite restaurant guide book was minding its own business in the summer of 1999 when it was approached by NTT Communications Corp., a fledgling telecom company in Japan. The company had decided that it needed a killer application if it wanted its wireless service to be adopted, and it had targeted the Zagat Survey. Although Tim and Nina Zagat planned eventually to develop a guidebook for restaurants in Tokyo, they had not yet done so. So all NTT did was pick up the tab for the research and development of the Tokyo book in exchange for the rights to serve it up wirelessly via cell phones.

NTT now has more than 1 million subscribers after only eight months in business. They bet big on content, and they were right to do so. They took a cell phone, which everyone already had, and turned it into a tool that could locate nearby restaurants and make reservations in real time. And that's just for starters.

Some wireless devices are already capable of trading stocks, tracking packages, and ordering books and music. Eventually, people will wonder how we ever did those things without a wireless device. But for now, we'll watch the service providers and device manufacturers scramble to ally themselves with the right content partners. Because in the end, it's the content that people really want, and the cell phone or handheld that brings it to you becomes about as interesting as a rotary phone.

What types of content are you looking for on your wireless device? Write to me at dan_briody@infoworld.com.

Dan Briody is an InfoWorld editor at large.

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