This six-part blog series will retrace the evolution of the mobile Internet in an attempt to understand its complicated history. Part 1 touches on the history of the PC Internet. Part 2 covers AT&T Pocketnet, the First Mobile Internet Phone. Part 3 is about NTTDOCOMO’s i-mode.
While data services were exploding in Japan in the early 2000s, the Western world seemed to declare each year, at various conferences, that, “This will be the year for the mobile Internet.” But despite some success, these prophecies were largely wrong until the latter part of the decade. The decade started with a dot-com bust that took down many of the Internet companies that were declaring wireless to be the new frontier for the Web. And when the dust settled after the bust, the remaining companies that stayed loyal to their beliefs in the mobile version of the World Wide Web, had to wait patiently, for years, until the adoption rate finally lived up to expectation. Mobile Internet adoption did grow during the first part of the decade, but it seemed to always be short of expectations in North America and Europe.
The successful mobile start-ups during this time were not getting rich on the mobile Internet. They, instead, focused their time and energy on the money-makers at that time: SMS services and digital downloads such as ringtones.
Why did the mobile Internet fail to live up to expectations in the Western world in the early part of the decade? And why was i-mode so successful during this same period? Around the same time that AT&T launched PocketNet in 1997, the WAP Forum (now Open Mobile Alliance) was formed. WAP, or the Wireless Application Protocol, was started in June 1997 by founding members Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Openwave, formerly Unwired Planet which is the browser AT&T was using for its first PocketNet phone. The WAP Forum was busy creating specifications for the protocol and markup language that would bridge the differences between a mobile network (GSM, TDMA at the time) and the Internet. As a result, carriers utilizing products from these vendors began a shift to WAP and WML (Wireless Markup Language) by the early 2000s. Even early-leader AT&T shifted from the HDML markup language used for PocketNet to WML by 2002. Meanwhile, i-mode was benefiting from a different choice in technologies; a technology that more closely resembled HTML development for the PC.
WAP was spreading throughout the world, riding on the backs of the vendors that supported it in the WAP Forum. The proponents for the technology were naturally the vendors that benefited from it most – those that sold expensive network equipment into wireless carriers. Companies like Nokia, Ericsson and Openwave sold WAP gateways that formed the bridge between the IP-based Internet network and the mobile networks, which were not inherently IP-based. These vendors had every motivation to create and promote a new technology for mobile development, because it generated significant revenue when they sold their WAP gateways to carriers. The impact, of course, was on the developer who had a difficult time with the new protocol and language, as it required different skills and tools from PC Web-based development. Carriers responded by building developer programs to educate the development community on the new standards, but there was little interest in WAP/WML. Thus, it became clear that WML would not become the basis for growth and survive as a standard for mobile Internet development. The Western world hit a bump in the road that would cause a change for developers.
By 2001, xHTML Mobile Profile 1.0 specifications were released, although it would take a couple of years before there were significant phones in the market that supported it. Coincidentally, the first phones with color screens were beginning to launch at the same time, so combining xHTML and CSS together gave mobile Internet sites a new look. It was the equivalent of watching the Wizard of Oz in black and white (WML) and then seeing Dorothy land in color when she set foot in Oz (xHTML). Again, the Japanese were laughing at the rest of the world because they had their first color phone dating back to 2000 with the DoCoMo D502i phone. The rest of the world was years behind, with most countries waiting for the Ericsson T68 as the first color screen phone (AT&T launched the phone in the U.S. in 2002.) While xHTML was certainly an improvement over WML, it meant that developers needed to support two very different markup languages during a transition period (This transition period has not ended as some geographies still sell WML phones.) Furthermore, although xHTML was closer to HTML than WML, it was still different.
Thus, for most of the decade, developers were confused with various standards and slow networks. The mobile Internet showed promise, but it was growing slowly, buoyed largely by media and entertainment companies that could make money selling digital downloads and services. And in the enterprise space, e-mail was the killer app. But by 2007, this would radically change. Third-generation (3G) network deployments were well underway and a new phone was ready to hit the market. The hype was finally about to live up to expectation.
NEXT WEEK: Part 5, “Apple Sparks the Long-Awaited Mobile Internet”