What went wrong with the mobile Web?

Despite predictions, it's been a flop so far, but that's changing and the iPhone is paving the way

The walled garden. Many people claim that cellular service providers are discouraging Web browsing because they prefer to sell specific content instead of letting subscribers get their content wherever they want on the Web. In this "walled garden" approach, the carriers collect money from users for content as well as access.

For consumers, a big downside of walled gardens is that the available content often isn't really unique.

"The core [walled garden] stuff is news and weather and whatnot that, realistically, you can pull down anywhere," Greengart said. But, he added, the operators' insistence on walled gardens has led them to discourage -- through pricing plans and by offering phones with inadequate browsers -- adoption of the open mobile Web.

"Walled gardens have impeded adoption of [mobile] broadband services," Greengart said.

Carrier concerns. A more understandable concern of cellular carriers, Kazakoff said, is that encouraging a more open Web experience on phones could lead to the proliferation of malicious software. Besides harming users, this also could gum up networks with unwanted traffic and increase support costs.

"If you layer that concern on top of the content [and revenue] issues, it's easy to understand why carriers' knee-jerk reaction is to hold on to as much control as possible," he said. "Any lack of control [over access] is scary to the operators."

What the future holds

Despite these problems, the experts agree that we're approaching a time in which more people will regularly browse the Web with their phones. Helping to blaze the trail is Apple's iPhone, whose Safari browser renders standard Web pages significantly better than other mobile browsers do, according to most reviewers.

"A year ago, if you asked people if they'd consider searching the Internet with their phone, they'd ask, 'Can you do that?'" Greengart said. "Now, the answer would be, 'Maybe I would if I had an iPhone.' Other vendors will step up with phones that let users do that, too. The iPhone was a great proof of concept of the type of things you can do."

Added Kazakoff: "The iPhone is showing carriers the benefits of a less-controlled experience and high-usability devices." That, in turn, will create a convergence of events that will lead to more mobile Web adoption, the experts say.

First, Apple competitors such as LG Electronics Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. are preparing to offer phones that, like iPhone, will have browsers and displays that will show Web pages clearly. The arrival of new devices like those, in turn, will lead to an increase in the number of Web sites that are designed for mobile browsers and to an increase in the number of Web applications that are tuned to the very act of being mobile, Rubin predicted.

"We'll see information that's relevant to where you may be at a given moment," he said. "There are some mapping sites that already do that, and some interesting applications are coming" including ones that provide location-sensitive search capability.

An increase in the number of Web-savvy phones and applications will create a lot of momentum toward widespread adoption of the mobile Web, Rubin predicted.

The final impediment will be the cellular carriers, Rubin said. On the one hand, they don't want to give up potential walled-garden revenues. Nor do they want to support a wide variety of browsers. On the other hand, they need to attract the type of higher-paying subscribers that sophisticated Web applications can attract.

"To advance the marketplace and accommodate users who deliver high [revenues], they need to answer a demand for these kinds of services," Rubin said. The task of cellular operators will be to find other avenues that can generate revenue without restricting what users can access.

Potentially, Sprint Nextel's Xohm mobile WiMax service could force the issue, Rubin added. Sprint has said it won't require long-term contracts and that it will provide a wide-open Web experience while charging less than the typical cost of 3G service and providing faster speeds.

"Strong competition is always a catalyst," Rubin concluded.

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David Haskin

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