Mobile Web: History of the Mobile Internet, Part 2

This six-part blog series will retrace the evolution of the mobile Internet in an attempt to understand its complicated history. Part 1 touched on the history of the PC Internet.

AT&T POCKETNET– THE FIRST MOBILE INTERNET PHONE

By 1997, the Internet was booming. It was also the year that AT&T Wireless unveiled the world’s first mobile Internet phone. Developed by Pacific Communications Sciences Inc., the phone was branded PocketNet, and it looked like a standard mobile phone at the time, but with one major difference – it included a 19.2 Kbps modem running on AT&T’s new Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) network. Two additional phones using the PocketNet service followed: the Mitsubishi Mobile Access (MA120) and the Samsung Duett.

Despite being the first to market with Internet-capable phones, AT&T’s initial phones were not a tremendous success. (Reports suggest that slightly more than 20,000 analog PocketNet phones were sold.) There were many factors that contributed to the relatively slow adoption of the first Internet phone. The PocketNet phone had a three-line, 60-character LCD screen that limited readable text without significant scrolling. This limited its use and appeal, as it was not compatible with most Web sites that were being developed in 1997.

But more importantly, the first PocketNet phone used the analog AMPS network for voice calling at a time when users were demanding digital voice features. The phone had made an interesting leap in technology to support a data connection, but it missed the popular transition at the time to move to the digital voice network (AT&T’s digital TDMA network). Moreover, users selected a channel and network, which meant that a voice call could not be received while a user was in data mode.

Nevertheless, even if it was not a success, it was a start. And the introduction of the first Mobile Internet phone meant that AT&T had formed the teams necessary to operate and market data services. This was an important turning point for a wireless carrier that built its operations around selling voice communication through airwaves. The mobile Internet forced a new way of thinking – AT&T needed to build teams to work with the development and content community that would provide the services behind the PocketNet device.

In 1999, AT&T attempted a second launch of the PocketNet service.  Learning from its mistakes with the initial analog version of PocketNet, it rolled out two digital devices: the Ericsson R280LX and the Mitsubishi T250.  While the Ericsson phone had the same three-line screen limitation as the initial analog PocketNet device, the Mitsubishi phone had an eight-line screen that made surfing the Web on a mobile device more manageable. Adoption of the digital version of PocketNet was much better than its analog counterpart two years prior (it reached 100,000 subscribers by July 2000).

But it had its own issues. By 2000, AT&T was secretly developing plans to abandon its digital TDMA network (and its accompanying CDPD data network) for the global standard at the time – GSM. GSM would have its equivalent data network, GPRS, so any future investment in the CDPD data network at that time would have been short-lived. Thus, PocketNet came to an end and the Mitsubishi and Ericsson phones became the only digital PocketNet phones to hit the market.

The first PocketNet phones, both analog and digital versions, were powered by technology from Unwired Planet, which later became Phone.com, and then later became Openwave. The technology used a protocol known as Handheld Device Transport Protocol (HDTP), and a markup language known as Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML).

This point is critical as the protocol and markup language differ from the standards developed for the PC Internet. Unwired Planet justified that limitations in the device and network required different technologies for wireless, but as the world soon learned in Japan, that was not necessarily the case. Unfortunately for AT&T, the lesson would not be learned for a few years. Although HDTP/HDML was abandoned when AT&T switched to a GSM network and adopted GPRS capable phones, it also inherited a growing mobile Internet standard in Europe at the time: Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and Wireless Markup Language (WML).

The protocols and languages again differed from the standard being developed for the PC Internet, causing differentiation between PC and mobile. This differentiation caused issues with sourcing content – as developers building popular PC Web sites had to code to different specifications and use different tools for development and testing. Meanwhile, NTT DoCoMo was taking a different path and its explosive growth, admired by the rest of the world, was attributed to some degree by the technology choice that it made.

NEXT WEEK: Part 3, i-mode – The Early Leader in Mobile Data Services.

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