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From Scandinavia With Love

I was recently speaking at a conference called Escandinavia 2000, which covered the state of the Internet in Scandinavia. During that conference, I had a chance to speak to a number of people about the state of wireless in the Scandinavian countries. Here’s what I’ve learned and how it can help those of you who are working in the wireless space in the United States.

The Hybrid World Lives!

Many of you may remember the February 10th issue about Hybrid Computing. While talking with Birger Steen, CEO of Scandinavia Online, I discovered that the concept is not that far off the market. It is his contention that WAP-enabled phones are largely a pain in the back when it comes to interface. Having to key in every letter on the small phone keyboard is far from the easiest thing in the world. As a result, Scandinavia Online has developed a set of services that allows users of their portal jump on their site and configure their WAP view on the web. From his point of view, this is the best service he can offer now to wireless users.

The point was reiterated by a few people around the conference that told me that going to the web to configure a cell phone was the best way to deal with the small screen interface problem encountered by most WAP phones. Anne Rasmussen, of WAPportal.net demonstrated how their company plans to offer a similar service in a hosted fashion for corporate sites and others. The word around Scandinavia is that if you want to find the best way to configure a WAP phone, you have to go to the web via a computer to do so.

M-Commerce Huge … but not for Etailers

Another significant trend is the rise of M-commerce. In Finland, and to a lesser extent Denmark, Norway and Sweden, people can already use their WAP phones to buy from vending machines. The vending machine has a telephone number on it. You dial that number and a credit is added to the machine, to be billed on your phone bill. With the introduction of security in the new WAP standards, a few people were talking about how in the future the question “will it be cash, check, credit card, or phone?” may not sound silly.

What they envision is that WAP phones could become the new credit card.

A recent survey found that in Scandinavian countries, 82% of the people would go back to get their cell phone if they forgot it before leaving home, while only 64% would do the same thing if they forgot their wallet. The basic concept is one that may be foreign to those of us who live in the United States and revolves largely around the fact that GSM phones are equipped with a small identification chip called a SIM card. You can take the chip out of one phone and put it in another and you don’t have to worry about changing phone number or contact info.

Because of the emergence of such a way to do billing, some of the speakers at the conference predicted that the long run path for mobile phone operators would be to merge with financial institutions as their services will increasingly resemble those of credit card companies.

However, few people were optimistic about the prospects of etailers when it comes to mobile phones. “When I’m in a store buying something, I’m not going to go up on the web to check if it’s available at a web store,” told me one attendant. “I want to get it now and not wait a few days for it to show up in the mail.”

As a result, the promise of m-commerce is good for software vendors (who will sell packages that allow operators to set themselves up as currency clearinghouse) and mobile phone operators (who could become the next big financial force) but unfortunately, current etailers will not fare as well.

Content is King… in a Wireless Republic

The promise of advertising supported content on wireless phone has been hailed by some as a new way to support content sites. Unfortunately, few content providers will survive in the wireless space as demand for those services does not seem to meet expectations. Talking with people from the Scandinavian arm of large American companies who have tried to go the wireless route as a distribution channel, I discovered that there was not much demand for those services. “Sure, people do check the price of their stock on the phones but they still call our voice line to place their order,” said one executive from an online trading company.

As a general rule, the demand for content seems to be limited to a few areas: entertainment (bars, clubs, and restaurants locators), financial (stock prices) and sport-related (latest scores). However, many of the people involved in those areas told me that they were still looking for a proper business model. The locators are looking at a coupon-like scheme, whereas bars can offer a special coupon and people can go to a bar and show the phone coupon to get a rebate on drinks (“It appears that beer is the hot wireless app” quipped one panelist). Financial services and sports services are currently looking at possible subscription based models or at deals with operators whereas they would share a portion of the revenue they are generating for the operators.

CN U RD THS

On the other hand, communication in the hot wireless app. SMS has clearly become the hot app when it comes to wireless service across Scandinavia and across Europe. Because operators are charging lower rates for data services than they are for voice traffic, short messaging has become the quickest way for people to get in touch. A new lingo is starting to pop up around SMS as people are trying to economize the number of keystroke they type (SMS messages are limited to 160 characters). As a result, the headline for this section would translate from CN U RD THS to Can you read this?

Convergence in the Making

I also talked to a bartender who told me that the previous night a woman was in the bar looking for some of her friends and asked him if he could change the TV channel to a particular teletext page (in a lot of European countries, TV channel use the extra bandwidth to carry data. As a result, while watching the BBCyou could switch to the BBC teletext channel and read the latest news, etc… on there). The channel this woman was using allowed her to converse with several of her friends in a TV-based chat room by using her phone and an SMS gateway. True convergence in my book but the problem here is where revenues for an online operator are. Unfortunately, the only operators who will make money on this will be the phone operators who are racking up extra data minutes of usages.

Smaller, Faster, Cheaper

The good news, from a user’s point of view, though, is that those services are coming in a smaller package. A lot of the phones I saw over there would put our American phones to shame. On average, European phones are now weighing about 2.78 ounces (79 g.), a form factor of 3.9 X 1.75 X .6 inches (101.5 X 44.5 X 17 mm.), and a battery life that allows for either 150 hours of standby time or 4 hours of talk time. Of course, they come equipped with voice recognition (so you can have the number dial based on a name you give to it), predictive text input (a new set of tools for SMS which allows the phone to predict what word you’re going to type based on your input), and are WAP ready. The most interesting thing is that they usually are priced under $200 which makes me feel that we’re overpaying in the US.

The future is now?

The new thing around that space, though, is not a smaller phone or a better way to do e-commerce but a new set of services around higher speeds of access. The first step in that direction is GPRS, which offers about 20kb per second and has been rolled out around Europe. This is seen as a way to distribute such services as music and better news on the phones. However, the real discussion is centering on UMTS which promises wireless throughputs of 2Mb per second or more. Portions of the UMTS spectrum have already been allocated in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, Norway and Finland, with the rest of Europe moving quickly on allocating this space. UMTS proponents envision the use of wireless video conferencing and a better Internet experience to result from this new development.

Euro Fighting

One of the big challenge in terms of doing business in Europe is location. Because most of the European countries are too small to create an actual market for digital services, European operators usually have to provides sites in multiple languages, and support multiple currencies. As a result, European etailers tend to be in favor of the Euro, which would make their lives a little easier. However, as the currency is slowly deflating in the currency market, opposition to the Euro is growing across Europe. On September 26, Denmark is holding a vote on whether to join the Eurozone or not and this election is seen across Europe as a big test for the Euro’s power.

The reason it the Danish election is so important in Europe is that if the Danish vote fails, England’s upcoming vote will probably do so too. As a result, there is a lot of concern across Europe about this election. Many etailers I met in Copenhagen told me that they were trying to organize themselves to push for adoption and work across borders when it comes to those election. Danes I talked to told me that British conservative politicians (who are opposed to joining the Eurozone) had been lobbying in Denmark. This is a race that etailers both in Europe and the United States should pay attention to as it will most probably dictate the viability of the Euro as a currency and, if the Euro succeeds, could mean less headaches to all of us.

Going beyond Economic matters, support or lack thereof could mean either an acceleration or a slowdown for eEurope, a new initiative by the European Union to become a force in the information age by normalizing rules related to e-commerce across the difference members of the EU and offering incentives to companies that want to bring net services to the EU marketplace. Among the initiative supported under eEurope are net access in public schools and public centers, lower access costs for businesses and individuals, agreement on common specifications for a smart card infrastructure, financial support for emerging tech companies and a number of social support and government services becoming available to all via the Internet.

All and all, what eEurope would mean is that countries would work in the EU government to set up rules about the Internet. I do not need to tell anyone reading this that it would be better for those of us in the industry as we would not have to lobby several governments in order to get the proper support for our industry.

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