The race for mobile internet access

.com bubble

Nokia 9000 Communicator (left). Photo by krystof.k
Nokia 9000 Communicator (left). Photo by krystof.k

At the height of .com bubble in late 1990s, decent internet access was pretty much only available on fixed locations like home or office. 56 kbps internet access through modem connected to telephone line was becoming common at homes after their introduction in 1997. Developed countries even began seeing more expensive broad-band internet access provider like @Home Network in America & Australia starting in 1996, offering speed of around 2 Mbps by leveraging cable television network or extensive fiber optic network owned by telecommunication carriers. For truly mobile internet access, only very few smart phones have GSM modem built-in, and this was operating at around 9.6 kbps, way slower than internet access at homes, and unacceptable to access most web sites. One such smart phone was Nokia 9000 Communicator.

Another obvious problem for mobile internet access was the smaller screen on smart phones. To remedy the situation, a different internet access protocol for mobile devices was being promoted starting in 1999, called Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). However, this presented another challenge as the WAP content had to be re-written in Wireless Mark-up Language (WML), not in usual Hyper-Text Mark-up Language (HTML). As a result, for the very few who were browsing internet in their mobile devices at that time, majority of sites were simply not optimised for mobile viewing. This would continue on for several years.

3G in new millenium

HTC Wallaby/O2 XDA. Photo by Shritwod
HTC Wallaby/O2 XDA. Photo by Shritwod

Telecommunication carriers began offering General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), dubbed 2.5G, starting in 2000, with speed of around 40 kbps, a bit closer to the speed of dial-up connection at homes at that time. In same year, Nokia updated its internet-ready smart phone with Nokia 9210 Communicator, running new Symbian S80 Operating System, but wasn’t making use of GPRS yet. In 2002, Handspring released Treo 180, a smart phone with mobile internet access capability on Palm OS platform, but wasn’t equipped to make use of GPRS either. In the same year, BlackBerry also released BlackBerry 5810, a smart phone on BlackBerry platform, but this one was already able to make use of GPRS. In 2003, HTC produced Wallaby, a smart phone based on Microsoft Pocket PC 2002, which was very successfully marketed by O2, a UK telecommunication carrier, as XDA. Wallaby/XDA already made use of GPRS. Browsing was done on Pocket Internet Explorer. In the same year, telecommunication carriers began offering Enhanced Data rate for GSM Evolution (EDGE), dubbed 2.75G, offering mobile access speed of up to 236 kbps.

Although it had been available since 2001, few telecommunication carriers were willing to build up their 3G network due to the size of investment needed. By around 2006 though, many countries have already started having their 3G network, including Indonesia. With speed of up to 384 kbps, mobile network had become a mainstream medium for fast internet access. Companies realised that their web site had to be modified to cater for mobile browsers as well, so as not to lose eye balls. Starting from that same year, innovative companies like mDog offered services to convert web sites to become more mobile-friendly. It’s easier to do this than to maintain separate technology & content for access via WAP. WAP’s fate was sealed.

Not long after rolling out 3G network, telecommunication carriers began upgrading it to High-Speed Down-link Packet Access (HSDPA), dubbed 3.5G, with speed of up to 14 Mbps. Mobile broad-band internet access was finally a reality

Hybrid mobile applications

iPhone. Photo by Eli Duke
iPhone. Photo by Eli Duke

Apple came into the smart phone scene as a new entrant in 2007 with iPhone. In the following year, Apple opened App Store, the on-line market place for iPhone applications made by any vendor. In the same year, Google also opened Android Market to provide similar market place for smart phones based on Google Android Operating System. These opened a new chapter in mobile internet access, with big web destinations like Facebook immediately offering mobile applications to make the browsing experience more pleasant by combining caching of previously read contents and live browsing of new contents. Aside from that, the mobile application also enable richer interaction between the web sites and the phone’s built-in equipments like Global Positioning System (GPS) transceiver and camera, automating the passing of information from those equipments to the web site.

Although a bit late, Content Management System (CMS) vendors started realising that they need to offer out-of-the-box mobile capabilities in the web sites that use them. For example, FatWire, whose CMS originated with the founding of FutureTense in 1995, only started offering mobile rendering capabilities in 2009 with the release of their Mobility Server. This had an effect of reducing companies’ need to depend on services like mDog’s to provide ease of mobile browsing. Even companies who don’t use CMS in their web site started to build mobile capability from scratch into their web sites in order to keep attracting mobile internet traffic.


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