Among the topics of conversation for those who make 2007 business technology predictions is the extent to which the “mobile web” — cell phones and other devices that access the Internet for information and ecommerce — will gain traction in the United States.
In parts of Europe and Asia, devices with mobile Internet capability, such as cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs), actually outnumber desktop PCs and laptops. However, in America, the mobile web has been limited until now to communication among tweens, teens and twentysomethings. They text message each other, take photos and use phones, PDAs and hybrid devices for email, much like the rest of us leveraged our PCs back in the mid-1990s.
Don Dodge, currently the director of business development for Microsoft’s Emerging Business Team, writes on his blog regarding his Top Five Hot Technology Predictions for 2007, “Mobile applications are hot, going far beyond ring tones.”
Ross Dunn, the CEO of StepForth Placement Inc., a Canadian search-engine marketing company, wrote in an article for the Internet Search Engine Database, that the mobile “marketplace will see significant growth this year as Internet marketing companies jump into the fray and begin offering mobile site creation, promotion and optimization.”
Investments made into the progress of mobile Internet technology by traditional web giants like Microsoft and Google is the source of excitement voiced by pundits like Dodge and Dunn. Toward the end of 2006, a construct called dotMobi was made available to the business public, allowing companies — from entrepreneurships to conglomerates — to buy top-level domains “dedicated to delivering the Internet to mobile devices,” according to the dotMobi website.
Investors into this effort (which got started way back in 2000) include players like Ericsson, Google, GSM Association, Hutchison, Microsoft, Nokia, Orascom Telecom, Samsung Electronics, Syniverse, T-Mobile, Telefónica Móviles, TIM and Vodafone.
There is no requirement that business owners endeavoring to take their ebusinesses into the mobile environment sign up for a .mobi domain. However, the upside to having a .mobi domain is that savvy mobile consumers will know your mobile site complies to dotMobi organizational standards, which require your mobile site to work across a multitude of devices.
Is It Time To Dive In?
However, does this mean small business owners should make room in their capital budgets for the creation, implementation and promotion of mobile ecommerce sites in 2007? Can’t the mobile web wait just a bit?
“It hasn’t been done a lot yet,” acknowledges Rob Witman, the CEO of RiffWare, a California-based company providing mobile application and services development.
Witman’s chief concerns about the mobile web for business echo the concerns users have had about mobile websites for years: frustrating site interfaces, development constraints and promotional difficulty.
“I’m very frustrated personally with the mobile Web experience,” he said specifically directed toward business and ecommerce via mobile Web. “I don’t see it being a big thing right now.”
Two Ways to Go Mobile
Nevertheless, he and a multitude of other experts say it will be big soon. Witman said that for the business that’s ready to dive into mobile waters, there is a two-pronged approach to selling goods and services on the mobile web.
Businesses could develop applications to be run on mobile devices that would allow customers to buy their goods or use their services. For example, RiffWare created an application for a service called WeatherBug, which, when installed on a mobile device, can be used to deliver real-time weather content to subscribers.
An example of a service that can be run on mobile devices to facilitate ecommerce is eBay Mobile, which allows buyers to search for items, view a simplified items listing and bid and buy on selected goods.
“They’re able to provide you a much better user experience than by going through the mobile web,” Witman said.
The second and perhaps most economical way to move from the traditional website to a mobile web presence, Witman said, is to recreate your site in such a way that it can be viewed on mobile devices.
When Witman says that a business would need to recreate its website for delivery to mobile devices, that’s exactly what he means.
“You almost have to go back and redesign the whole thing,” he said.
“It really is a custom environment,” he said.
Simplicity is paramount when designing a mobile website. Not only are you limited graphically, it’s important that your site be organized in such a way that information can be accessed with a minimal number of clicks and a minimal amount of typing. However, businesses that want to build mobile websites can pick from an array of tools that will equip them to do so in a matter of minutes.
A service available on Mobisitegalore.com will help build your mobile website in a click-and-choose fashion with no technical knowledge required. It’s free, although the service does accept donations. This option claims to be standards compliant.
Standards compliancy is important when developing sites for the mobile web — it ensures that your eSite can be viewed in a consistently acceptable fashion over a range of devices. To that end, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3.org), an international coalition working to develop universal web standards, approved a markup language in 2006 to make that possible. It’s called the Device Independent Authoring Language (DIAL). It’s similar to HTML in its structure, yet different in syntax.
In terms of hosting, mobile sites can be stored on the same server that houses a conventional website. Most hosting providers allow developers to create subdomains that point to folders on the server. In such an arrangement, a subdomain for yoursite.com could point to a folder on the server housing the related mobile web pages.
Taking Mobile from a Communication Tool to a Transactional Device
According to Witman, the processes and technologies by which consumers buy products over the mobile web are the same as for transactions conducted via the traditional Internet. For example, he noted that a typical ecommerce merchant account should work fine when accessed via a mobile website.
Nevertheless, the concern remains that it’s necessary to develop an online store in such a way that it displays properly on mobile devices. Also, ecommerce stores should be organized in such a way that mobile consumers are required to do only a minimal amount of clicking and typing.
Meanwhile, companies like PayPal have begun to establish mobile-specific payment mechanisms, such as PayPal Mobile, which allows PayPal account holders to send money to other mobile consumers. The transactions are protected via a PIN number, and according to the company’s website, mobile transactions are protected under the same policies that guide online purchases. PayPal even has a text-to-buy feature in which consumers can purchase goods via their mobile device with a single click.
Conventional websites utilize SSL certificates to encrypt information going from buyer to seller. Savvy web users know to look for the https:// protocol as well as the closed lock at the bottom of the browser window to know whether the SSL certificate is in place before finalizing a purchase.
Mobile websites utilize something called Wireless Transport Layer Security (WTLS) encryption between “mobile devices, micro-browsers and servers that support the WTLS protocol,” according to the Entrust certificate services web page. A one-year server certificate from Entrust costs $1,199. Businesses can purchase a two-year certificate for $1,999.
Promoting Your Mobile Biz
Let’s say your mobile site is up, and it works across most all mobile devices. Now, how do you get people to visit?
“The difficulty for a small business is going to be in driving people to that place,” Witman said.
Both Yahoo! and Google have invested significant money and energy into mobile search, which by some estimates could be a $10 billion industry by 2010. Therefore, optimizing your mobile site for mobile search is a must for the mobile business. Shari Thurow at Searchenginewatch.com recommended in a Dec. 26 article that site builders keep content relevant but short and that they adhere to standards.
However, a smart mobile-search strategy for 2007 might include a simple communication to existing customers that your online website can be accessed via mobile devices. Let them know that they can take you with them wherever they go.
While prognosticators suggest 2007 is finally the year mobile web will break out in the United States, from an ecommerce perspective, it’s not such a sure thing. Mobile web usability headaches and promotional limitations make it difficult for small businesses to consider an immediate investment.
However, efforts such as dotMobi and standards such as DIAL make it clear that big business is intent on making the mobile web a significant ecommerce player in America soon. That means 2007 might be a great year to analyze what mobility means for your small business and how you can take advantage of it to gain a competitive edge.