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Mobile internet set for take-off?

Take-up increasing, but progress is slow

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The mobile internet is more toll road than superhighway, but the logjam could clear up.

On the face of things there is little reason to be confident that mobile internet will ever fully catch on with consumers. It's expensive, awkward to use, and lacks the content and functionality of a traditional PC-based browser.

While mobile internet may appear beset with obstacles, the people behind the dot-mobi (.mobi) domain, which was set up in part to help improve the quality of content available via the mobile web, feel the format is moving in the right direction.

"We've done quite well given how long it's [mobile internet] been around," said Alexa Raad, vice president of marketing and business development at dot-mobi.

The firm managing the domain worldwide has been based in Dublin since January 2006. Dot-mobi has seen adoption of the domain accelerate in recent months; a total of 500,000 domains have been registered under dot-mobi. "It took the internet 10 years to get to where we are now," said Raad.

While the progress has quickened in recent months, barriers such as access costs remain. Raad said both businesses and consumers are suffering as a result of the high cost of usage.

"The access costs affect everyone," she said. "Consumers are much less likely to return if they are charged heavily."

There are moves being made by firms such as Three to offer pricing packages that are more reasonable to customer expectations. "We've recently seen a trend towards flat rate pricing," said Raad. She believes this move shows a greater confidence on the part of operators and will entice more consumers onto their mobile browser.

"Three said it was like a walled garden starting to come down. It will do a lot more to help ease consumer fears about pricing," said Raad. "In the old days of the internet there was no flat rate but once it was brought in there was an explosion of interest from the public," she said.

Raad is confident the greater availability of flat rate pricing will make more consumers want to use the mobile internet.

However, access is only part of the cost of using mobile internet. Making payments through a mobile browser is considerably more expensive than on a standard PC connection.

"Payments will only take off when commission rates fall in line with banks," said Donal McGuinness, head of mobile at m-payments firm Alphyra. "The commission charged when making payments with a phone vary from the high single digits to 35 per cent."

He said high charges were due to the security costs associated with the mobile internet. "The potential for fraud is a lot higher for a mobile phone," explained McGuinness.

There are, however, signs that the costs associated with making payments are becoming more attractive to consumers. "It's starting to come down," said McGuinness.

Despite this potential improvement on the pricing front the format still faces usability problems that could turn users off. "People either don't know they can use the internet on their phones, or it just seems too complicated," said Oliver Cavanagh, co-founder of PLIBA.

The Dublin-based firm was the first Irish website to use the dot-mobi domain, offering an online booking service for mobile phone users. Cavanagh, who set up the company with Frank Friel, said mobile operators and handset manufacturers held the key to improving usability.

"This [usability] could be greatly helped if more phones were sold with internet access properly enabled and with a clear launch button," he said.

"Knowing how to find the mobile site of a company you're interested in isn't easy enough today. People want to know where to go in order to avoid paying download fees for info that they can't even read on a small screen, and it's not obvious where to go for the mobile version of a site."

Cavanagh said the lack of public knowledge on the mobile internet had a direct impact on his firm's marketing strategy.

"I think you need to go straight to users who already know how to use the mobile internet, avoiding reaching out to the masses because they don't know how to access it on their phones," he said.

The PLIBA co-founder feels new arrivals to the market could drive change and make the mobile internet more usable for consumers. "The AT&T iPhone might shake this up with Apple's genial simplicity," said Cavanagh.

Getting consumers online via a mobile browser is tough enough, but keeping them there is an even greater challenge. Consumers want to be able to reach the content they seek with ease, something which proved a problem for pioneers of the internet.

"The past doesn't necessarily have to repeat itself," said Raad. She said mobile content providers are reacting to the needs of the mobile internet user. "It's more consumer driven. The ingenuity and innovativeness is amazing."

She said a phrasebook website had been set up by one firm to help people communicate while travelling abroad. "Content like this doesn't lend itself to a PC experience," said Raad.

"People who truly understand mobile internet know it is about being useful to the customer. Those that recognise this will be successful," she said.

© 2007 ENN

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