Using the Mobile Web is a Sticky Proposition

Another Mobile World Congress, and another week full of promises coming out of the wireless industry that we will find eventually use our mobile phones to access the web much like we use our PCs. While I do believe we’re closer (and some give the iPhone credit for this), I still think the finish line is far off. The cage match du jour, the fight between Linux operating systems offered by Google and the LiMo Foundation, underscores one of the big difficulties of using the mobile phone for a rich Internet experience.

There’s too much variation in operating systems and end devices, which makes it hard for developers to build applications for a mobile phone. Obviously people recognized this when it came to building applications for social networks (see: Open Social), but efforts to build platforms that span mobile phones are nascent.

One problem lies with the hardware, which varies from simple phones that serve mostly to make voice calls to smartphones that have the processing power to handle Office documents or broadcast television. There’s also an interface issue, such as whether it’s a touch screen, a scroll wheel, stylus or keypad.

Seriously, aside from finger cramps, anyone using a keypad to navigate the web is going to get really frustrated really quickly. Designing a browsing experience and services to optimize so much variety general results in designing for the lowest common denominator, or cutting them out entirely, and sticking with the few that have smartphones.

But the big problem is software — there’s too many operating systems to choose from. So the open platform zeitgeist is going mobile. AOL unveiled its open mobile developers platform earlier this week at the World Congress, based on technology assets it acquired from Airmedia, so it won’t be real until this summer. The platform allows a programmer to build applications for up to 150 different handsets using a variety of operating systems, but requires a client on each mobile phone.

Also trying to make the development side easier is Streamezzo, a Parisian startup that has raised $48 million to create its cross-platform software development kit. The kit won’t be available until Feb. 25, and requires a client on the end user’s handset. SFR, France’s second-largest mobile carrier, is running applications built on the Streamezzo SDK. Yahoo has launched a mobile widget development platform as well that went live this week, after being announced at CES in January..

On of the more interesting approaches is being taken by Chicago-based Novarra, an eight-year-old company that is working with carriers including Vodafone, U.S. Cellular and 3 Hong Kong to deliver the web to any phone, even low-end handsets. Novarra offers an appliance for carriers or a service that essentially offloads 80 percent of the data processing associated with downloading a web site to servers run by the carrier or Novarra. This cuts down on the amount of data traveling over the carrier network, and makes load times faster. Content providers such as Yahoo also use it to deliver lighter applications for mobile phones. Novarra powers Yahoo’s oneSearch via mobile.

Novarra’s success at driving data usage among its customers’ end users is exhibited by an increase of between $5 and $15 in ARPU for the carriers deploying the Novarra software. One only needs to look at AT&T’s recent profits, which were driven by wireless growth, to realize that pushing easier access to the Internet for all will drive revenue for carriers. The key is making it as convenient to use the web on a mobile phone as it is to use it from a computer.