Why The Mobile Web Had Such A Terrible Start

I’ve been thinking a bit about the recent history of mobile Internet access lately because I was wondering why it had such a teribble start. In the mobile world, the web had a much more difficult start compared to the fixed line world for a number of reasons. First attempts by mobile phone manufacturers to mobilize the web were a big disappointment for quite a number of reasons. In the fixed line world the web got an incubation time of at least a decade to grow, to be refined and to be fostered by researchers and students at universities before being used by the public who already had sufficiently capable notebooks, PCs and a reasonably priced connection to the Internet. In the mobile world, things were a lot different when first web browsers appeared on mobile phones around the year 2001:

  • Mobile Internet access was intended straight for the public instead of first attracting researchers and students to use and refine the services. Unlike at universities where the web was free for users, companies wanted to monetize the service from day one.
  • Few if any appealing content for the targeted audience was available in an adapted version for mobile phones.
  • Mobile access to the Internet was very expensive so only few were willing to use it.
  • Circuit switched bearers were used at the beginning which were slow and not suitable for packet switched traffic.
  • The mobile phone hardware was not yet powerful enough for mobile web browsers. Display sizes were small, screen resolutions not suited for graphics, no color, not enough processing power and not enough memory for rendering pages.
  • Use of a dedicated protocol stack (the Wireless Application Protocol, WAP) instead of HTML required special tools for web page creation and at the same time limited the possibilities to design mobile and user friendly web pages.

Each of the points mentioned above would have been enough on its own to stop the mobile web in its tracks. Consequently many roadblocks needed to be overcome before the Internet on mobile devices started to become interesting to a wider audience. This fortunately coincided with the emergence of the web 2.0 and its evolution into the mobile domain. But that’s another story.

As always, comments are welcome!

2 thoughts on “Why The Mobile Web Had Such A Terrible Start”

  1. All valid points. How about:
    – Mobile Internet was trying to find its feet during the .com boom, when too many people were funding and implementing bad ideas.

    On the other hand, without a few failures, would there have been much impetus to develop high speed mobile packet data?

  2. Having been involved in the development of the mobile Internet right from the first WAP days, I contend that the business and service aspects were the real stumbling blocks in the way of the mobile Internet; technical issues were hindrances, but not decisive ones. Point by point:
    1) Though academic usage might have polished the rough technical edges, I doubt there would have been any convincing services coming out of that corner anyway. More essential to explain the users’ discontent were the wrong expectations raised by the misplaced marketing message of having “the Internet in your pocket”, and by implication the then popular PC applications running on, or interacting with phones.
    2) Right on. How unfortunate that some elements of the mobile advantage (e.g. location) were not present early on, although they could have (I think mostly of click-to-call).
    3) There were appealing applications — except that most of them were far too expensive to induce a significant level of utilization…
    4) A very important and decisive point. Not only was the access (i.e. connect charges) expensive, the subscription, pay per use, or per download charges were often outrageous.
    I remember these customer surveys from 5 years ago were most respondents stated that even when they liked the services, they would not use them if their employer would not take over the fees. Unsurprising since most of these services, contrarily to, say ringing tone downloads, had to do with transient, use-once information (news, sports and weather info, alerts, etc).
    5) The mobile Internet in its various guises relied on packet bearers right from the beginning (example: CDPD). ALL network access methods had limited bandwidth, long delays and varying degrees of reliability at that time. Using richer content would only have exacerbated the problem.
    6) Thin clients with small monochrome screens and limited graphical and processing capabilities were not the reason for the initial failure of the mobile Internet. Historically, such technical and usability constraints are not a reason for unavoidable failure. First case in point: SMS. A huge worldwide success despite no graphics whatsoever, very limited content capacity, and RSI-inducing data entry. Second case: Minitel. 1980-era devices with limited resolution monochrome display (with character graphics), over slow PSTN lines. A huge success in its home market: in 2000, as Minitel was already declining, French consumers paid €684M for content such as finance, news, professional databases and adult chats. At the same time, all European users, with their MacIntoshes and Win-98 PCs, paid €252M for games, business news, adult content, etc. on the Internet (Jupiter figures).
    For another view at the issue: i-Mode has been a huge success in Japan. The same technology deployed in other countries (from Taiwan to Israel, from Germany to UK) has been a dismal failure. The reason ? Not the technology, but the business approaches.
    7) Let us not confuse the protocol stack and the markup language used for content.
    WAP replaced the usual HTTP/TLS/TCP/IP with its own stack (WSP/WTLS/WTP/WDP) in order to cater with the severe performance problems induced by the Internet protocols over wireless networks (see point 5). This was generally considered reasonable by most knowledgeable participants in the industry: Unwired Planet in the USA, and NTT DoCoMo in Japan discarded TLS and TCP and replaced them with their own protocol layers when they launched their mobile Internet services. The advances in networking have made the traditional Internet protocol stack adequate for the past few years. In any case, application developers rarely, if ever, had to bother about what kind of protocols ran under the hood, so this cannot have been a major factor for the low acceptance of WAP. On the other hand, the choice of the markup and scripting languages was a poor one. It would definitely had been better to just use c-HTML and ensure a high degree of familiarity amongst developers and a fair degree of compatibility with existing development tools. But there were plenty of political and business issues in the WAP Forum about who controlled the specifications, and as c-HTML was tied to DoCoMo, and HDML to Unwired Planet/ATT…
    TITLE: Why The Mobile Web Had Such A Terrible Start
    URL: http://share.websitemagazine.com/story.php?id=2513
    BLOG NAME: share.websitemagazine.com
    DATE: 12/19/2007 03:49:59 PM
    In the mobile world, the web had a much more difficult start compared to the fixed line world for a number of reasons.

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