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Flirting tops recession-beating US wireless agenda

Tasteless maybe - but shockingly cluefull

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What brings two hundred developers to the hairdryer-parched salt flats of northern Santa Clara?

The same thing that has always brought the tech hopeful here - the prospect of striking gold. Only this is wireless hype, 2001-style: which means that with Silicon Valley ghostly quiet these days, no one can hear you scream.

We dropped into the WirelessDeveloper 2001 at the Santa Clara Westin this week to see how the prospectors were shaping up. And we got a mildly pleasant surprise. Characteristically the US wireless industry has been painted as high on traditional American optimism but low on cluefulness. This time around the optimism is more guarded - could it be anything else after the bubble burst? - but developers finally seem to be getting it.

By 'it' we mean that the appetite for shovelling repurposed content at the users - regardless of need, screensize, bandwidth: in other words all the factors that made WAP crash and burn first time round - has diminished. It's been replaced by common sense, if not good taste.

For a start the developers seem to have ventured across the pond: or at least outside the isolated and fragmented US market. The SMS text messaging phenomena that grips the rest of the (GSM) world has been duly noted: and the ideas discussed here by pioneer games and content start ups recognized that point to point mobile communication isn't the medium, it's the message.

Even BlueZone, a Vancouver based outfit that is building handheld versions of the ABC news site, says no one can tolerate video for more than a few seconds on a low bandwidth connection.

Manhatten-based HIPnTASTY demonstrated two location based games that capitalise on mobile data's great engines: teenagers and flirting.

How did co-founder Matt Sapero explore his market? "We go to clubs where teenagers go, we talk to them…" … uh-huh, we're thinking… "about the cool things they'd like to see on their cellphones". As if today's teenagers don't have enough to worry about - they're now being stalked by scary new media types!

Seriously though, in the two concepts Sapero showcased - a flirty Truth or Dare game and a treasure hunt that leads users into, you've guessed it, stores to find clues - the content is secondary to the phone as a communications device. Reductive, it may be - all marketing really is at the core - but it's commercially spot-on. The quickest and easiest way for mobile operators to drive up their ARPUs (average revenue per user) is simply to get us to talk or text a little more.

HIPnTASTY is also cultivating multiplayer games where once the combatants are within beaming distance, they can 'shoot' each other with Bluetooth. (Or, we wondered, they could go off and do the wireless version of Texan Chicken Hunt, and go off and zap the nearest 802.11 network…) The Bluetooth portion for several of these start-ups comes from the Intel-backed outfit Bluesoft Inc.

Nokia and Ericsson were present, the former giving away Symbian Developer Kits for the 9210 in preparation for the launch of the 9290 communicator here next year. Blackberry held well attended sessions, and seems not the least bit phased by prospect of competition of 2.5G based phones. Which is a good call, as it can probably make the jump from analog CPDP to whatever flavour of digital packet data it prefers when the latter matures. (In Europe RIM is using GPRS as the backbone).

Right now the biggest problem a stateside wireless start-up faces isn't lack of capital - there's money around - but market fragmentation. Some attendees are pitching at 802.11-based pocket devices. Others with a telephony pedigree simply long for some common standards to prevail, or failing that miracle, then simply for better interoperability.

I can text friends back in England, in Australia, Thailand and even Japan (in which GSM is like the US, a minority taste) from here, but I can't text a GSM handset on the Cingular network in the room next door. Even from a web gateway. And GSM is much more readily available here than a lot of people assume.

But the network effects that the rest of the world has enjoyed are absent: which puts the abundance of capital, great ideas and enthusiasm in a sombre context. If say, by the end of year each wireless carrier promised text messaging interoperability between GSM, TDMA and CDMA based networks, things would look very different, very quickly. But regrettably that's not likely very likely. ®

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