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Last year, Smartshop.com Inc., a free comparison-shopping service for online shoppers, began to consider making its site compatible with the new wireless Internet technologies. "We looked at the indicators and found that wireless was growing like mad," says Tim Musgrove, COO and CTO. "We looked at the service we offer-comparison shopping-and knew that consumers were not just going to do this behind a desk. We knew they would be out, carrying a Web-enabled phone in a shopping mall and comparing prices from their phones. We knew we had to do it."
So, in a well-calculated effort to jump on the trend, the Morgan Hill, California, company decided to add wireless capabilities to its site-meaning customers can now browse, research and compare prices for a wide range of products straight from their Internet-enabled handheld devices or mobile phones. It works like this: First, users log on to the wireless section of the company's site. Then, either customers can download the site's wireless capability onto their PCs to use on their PDAs, or, if they're using a mobile phone, they can log on to http://wireless.smartshop.com, which can be bookmarked for later use. Users can then use a pared-down version of the Smartshop.com site any time-whether they're on the road, at the mall or anywhere else they'd like to search for desired products by category or keyword.
Smartshop.com also plans to add wireless-based m-commerce purchase capabilities later this year. "With our new wireless capability, users can search literally hundreds of online merchants-even those that are not currently accessible wirelessly on the Web-through one application that displays competitive offerings side by side," says Musgrove. "This avoids the unwieldy process of visiting multiple merchant sites, and it also gives consumers the power to either walk away or ask the merchant to match a competitive price when they are shopping in brick-and-mortar stores."
Enabling your Web site with a format that's compatible with wireless devices means your customers can access your site any time, anywhere.
Although wireless devices aren't yet set up to allow full browsing of Web sites, you can let customers reach you by making part of your Web site wireless-enabled, as Smartshop.com did. Or you can use the technology to send your customers wireless e-mail alerts about any specials or promotions you're having.
The concept of wireless, however, is still in its infancy. Many people don't use wireless devices to access the Web because of expensive per-minute phone access charges and inadequate switching and wiring. But that's changing, experts say. According to Jupiter Media Matrix, by 2005, 96 million Americans will have access to the mobile Internet by PDA or phone. In addition, Jupiter's analysts believe the platform will continue to grow at a rapid rate as better handsets enter the market and carriers upgrade their networks. The costs of cell phones and PDAs are also falling-and are bound to fall even more drastically in the future.
In other words, as the market continues to grow, expect more and more consumers to demand m-commerce capabilities. But before you plunge into the wide world of m-commerce, it's important to remember that you'll be facing myriad challenges and expenses that don't affect you in the wired world. First of all, to effectively reach all mobile users, you must be able to accommodate any wireless device's platform, format and capabilities and be able to deliver through any wireless network. This process can be difficult. You'll also have to design the wireless portion of your site for phones and PDAs, which feature minidisplays and mini-keypads. And because these devices do not allow users to easily enter numbers and text, applications should have the intelligence to identify the string of letters of a word based on the first characters typed. Overall, wireless applications must be designed to provide navigation that's easy to follow, consistent and intuitive.
"You have very limited space on a phone or PDA, with very little power and battery time, so anything that the business can do to make the interaction with the customers as simple as possible, the better it is," says Sohrab Torabi, an e-commerce and m-commerce analyst at Datamonitor, an m-commerce market analysis firm.
Luckily, Musgrove realized ahead of time that navigation had to be easy for his wireless site to succeed. As a result, all the product descriptions Smartshop.com offers in the wireless application are in a common format, meaning all merchants' products are displayed in a consolidated list for easy price comparisons, special promotions, availability, shipping method, credit cards accepted and return policies. Pricing quotes also include hidden costs such as shipping and handling and taxes, so users don't have to search around for that information.
You'll also have to ensure your applications are designed to minimize the required number of round trips to the site server, because most wireless services charge users for each round trip and by the minute. Also, if you plan to send out e-mail alerts about promotions, you'll have to make sure they're short-less than 10 characters in length. And once users receive an alert, a URL should be easily available for them to access and respond accordingly.
Just keep in mind, while it's a perfectly good idea to provide helpful alerts and notifications, don't overdo it. Wireless applications should allow users to activate or deactivate alerts or change beep settings to avoid being irritatingly inundated. Given all these formidable challenges, experts suggest using a wireless ASP rather than setting up a wireless Web site by yourself. Smartshop.com, for example, chose wireless ASP iConverse. Other companies that offer similar services are Snaz.com and Air2Web. These companies usually offer consulting services and can help you set up a wireless strategy.
You may also want to get consultation from a wireless strategy consulting company, such as Mobilocity.com, or an e-commerce strategy company with a wireless division, which can then direct you to the proper wireless access service provider. Costs to set up a system vary and often depend on the number of wireless users accessing your application. But, in general, the average cost to set up a wireless application for a business costs about $50,000 to $100,000 and then about $20,000 to $50,000 per year for your license. Of course, if you just want to send noninteractive, mass e-mail alerts to consumers, the cost will probably be significantly lower. Because the investment is expensive, it's important to make sure your customers are consistent users of wireless devices before taking the plunge.
Musgrove is very confident in his belief that his company's customers use Web-enabled mobile phones or wireless PDAs on a regular basis. "If they don't, they will have it in six to nine months," he forcasts. And despite the heavy implementation costs, he insists the wireless application was well worth the investment. "We know lots of people have been downloading the application and installing it, and we consider it to be very successful."
Think tank makes e-biz less confusing
With the confusing array of e-business technologies in place today, it's about time someone stepped forward to create a standard set of recommendations. Called the Business Internet Consortium, the new think tank has already received commitments from more than 30 high-tech vendors, integrators and customers-including Capital One, Charles Schwab, Compaq, Dell, Ford, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Reuters. The group, motivated by customers who will propose problems to the group, will address the use of technologies such as XML, the integration of customers' existing systems with new e-business solutions and architectures, security, and improving the exchange of e-business info between different devices, such as PDAs and PCs. Work groups will be formed, and recommendations and white papers will be published. For more information, visit www.businessinternetconsortium.com.