"The opportunities today in wireless are much, much bigger than what I saw in the computer business back in 1983. Today's opportunities are tenfold greater," says Philippe Kahn, CEO of LightSurf Inc., a Santa Cruz, California, company that produces software for the wireless Web. And he should know.
Back in '83, Kahn was a pioneering software developer who quickly created two big hits-SideKick and TurboPascal-and thereby snagged an enduring place in tech history. But, he says, the possibilities that lie in the wireless information landscape are vastly richer than what he saw in 1983. For a very simple reason, really: "The numbers were so much smaller back then," explains Kahn, who recently sold his TrueSynch technology-for synching data between such devices as cell phones and computers-to cell-phone giant Motorola for an undisclosed amount. In the early '80s, PC users were sparse, which meant the market upside was funda-mentally tiny. But nowadays, he says, the potential audience for wireless Web products and services is already in the tens of millions of users. Says Kahn, "Today's landscape is explosive."
Explosive? You bet. The wireless Web will soon be in more hands than the conventional Web is. In 2003, predicts Datacomm Research Co., shipment of wireless-Web-ready smart phones will hit a stunning 350 million units. Factor in access via Internet appliances, wireless computers and more, and the number of potential wireless Web users just keeps mushrooming.
Although there will be many ways of accessing the wireless Web, the fastest growth area is widely expected to be via cell phones, mainly because "everybody wants to carry just one device," says Warren Wilson, senior analyst with Summit Strategies, a market research firm in Boston.
Granted, people are already carrying cell phone models and only newer phones feature wireless Web access, but the phone replacement rate is brisk. "Within two years, 30 to 50 percent of all mobile phones will have wireless data capabilities," says Rich Rifredi, an industry insider and vice president of the Wireless Internet Business Unit for Pixo Inc., a Cupertino, California, developer of mobile-commerce applications.
What's more, demand for the wireless Web will soar because it's triggering a revolution in information processing. "Wireless is enabling us to take the Inter-net with us everywhere," echoes Boris Fridman, CEO of Nettech Systems Inc., a Princeton, New Jersey, provider of wireless messaging software. "That's what's so exciting."
Think about that. This is about more than just "wow, that's cool" technology. At an initial glance, it may seem as though the big thing here is being cutting edge, but much more is at stake. "Over the past 20 years, businesses have spent trillions of dollars on IT, but the problem has been that as soon as the worker gets up from his PC, that investment is worthless," says Dave Rensin, chief technology officer at OmniSky Corp., a wireless-solutions developer in Palo Alto, California.
What exactly can be done with a wireless Net phone? Picture a few scenarios: What if you could keep your database of business contacts so that it's accessible whenever a cell phone is in your hands? How about accessing your calendar, too? Now dream bigger: Say you could get instant notification over the wireless Web when a stock hits a particular price-and you could also buy or sell shares in that company.
As many well know, those aren't dreams-all those functions can now be handled by digital phones-but this all-just scratched the surface. Books can be bought via Amazon.com with a phone; a few clicks on a phone touch-pad will bring e-mail to you; a few more clicks will show you the news headlines or weather . . . and none of this is technically difficult to do. "[That's why] people are beginning to view the phone as an important tool," says Ben Linder, vice president of marketing at Phone.com, a Redwood City, California, developer of a minibrowser that enables cell phones to perform these functions.
But all the uses aren't so glitzy. "The big trend with Net-capable phones isn't so much Web surfing as much as carrying an information appliance in your pocket," says Brian Cotton, industry manager for telecommunications with international market consulting firm Frost & Sullivan in San Jose, California. Face it: Nobody is likely to enjoy thumbing through Web sites on a phone-where a very few keys have to do the job of a full-sized keyboard, and graphics are limited by a miniscreen displaying only shades of gray.
What exactly can these phones do? Think information retrieval, says Patrick McQuown, president of Proteus, a Washington, DC, developer of wireless software applications. Imagine a sales rep standing in a client's office and using a phone to do a real-time search for inventory to satisfy the order. "That can be done already," says McQuown. "This is where wireless will excel-in meeting real-time information needs."