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What Makes Good Wireless (Part 1)

by Steve Outing 

Appeared originally Cyber Times June 21, 2000

Wireless content is the hottest new thing in interactive media. As technology marches on and more of us begin carrying mobile Internet phones, wireless handheld computers, e-tablet readers with wireless capabilities, and reading online content in cars, airplanes, etc., we as news publishers need to concentrate our efforts on designing content for mobile communications devices.

In a previous column, I looked at the form of wireless-device advertising. This week, let’s focus on what kind of content news publishers will be producing for the coming wave of wireless devices.

The news

OK, we’ve got to start with the obvious: News must be presented differently on small wireless devices than on the Web. Some publishers already have experience with publishing headlines to portable organizers (Palm Pilots, et al) via services like AvantGo. With smart phones, you’re dealing with even less screen real estate.

The best approach is to offer finely honed categories of news headlines — since headlines are all that will fit on a small screen. And don’t offer too many headlines — just a select few of the top stories, so a mobile user won’t have to scroll too much to see them all.

If you’re a general news site, you may want to start with a screen of news categories. (Local; State; National; Business; Lifestyle; Weather; Stocks.) The same goes for a niche-content site. A technology news site might start with news categories: E-commerce; Enterprise Computing; Internet; Communications; Rumors; etc. (rather than a long list of generic technology headlines).

After selecting one of those news categories, the user should see a small selection of top headlines — ideally no more than five or six. A nice approach is to offer either a brief summary or a longer article. (The Wall Street Journal does this with its AvantGo service for handheld devices. Below each headline is the option to see “summary” or “article.”)

With mobile devices, you’ll ideally want to take that one step further. In addition to letting users read text on their screens, add an “audio” option so they can hear the story summary read to them over the device. (Reporters may have recording voice summaries of their stories added to their duties, or a news site could hire voice talent to record story summaries daily.)

The key point is to edit your content ruthlessly for mobile users, and only put up those stories that are your best.

Personalized news

Frankly, such generic news is not likely to be used by mobile users as much as personalized content. Small phone screens are unlikely to replace larger-screened devices like PCs and Web-enabled TVs for news surfing. (Wireless handheld devices, however, may fare better. I’m an example of someone who already uses a Palm-OS organizer to review several Web sites daily to get the top news and technology headlines.)

Mobile news users will typically configure their devices to deliver filtered news that they care about. Each smart-phone user will have a custom headline opening screen, along the lines of a miniature, scaled-down MyYahoo page. In addition to fairly narrow news categories, mobile users should have the ability to specify that they receive granular news content (e.g., all of a news organization’s stories about the Denver Broncos, or all stories that mention a specific company).

Mobile-specific content from news publishers

Some news publishers (especially outside the U.S., where wireless Internet is further along) already are providing mobile-device-specific content. The Prague Business Journal, an American-owned, English-language business newspaper based in the Czech Republic, recently signed a deal with the country’s largest mobile phone provider to provide WAP (wireless application protocol) content. PBJ creates a digest called Czech AM, which is a summary of top stories from the Czech press, according to the company’s general manager, online division, Scott MacMillan. The newspaper’s staff gets early editions of all the local papers and translates stories in the middle of the night, condensing them to one to three sentences each. (PBJ’s parent company, New World Publishing, is working on similar deals for its papers in Warsaw and Budapest.)

MacMillan points out that not every type of content is suitable for mobile devices. “Just as attention spans dwindle when readers put down the printed paper and turn to the computer screen, so they dwindle even further where hand-held devices are concerned,” he says. “You really should have content in something like a digest format for it to be digestible via WAP.”

How’s your weather?

Weather is another mobile-device content “no-brainer.” The ideal mobile weather service will allow the device user to key in a zip code to get local weather conditions and forecast on demand — or better yet, the mobile phone network will know where the user is at any given moment and deliver a report based on current physical location.

Also, mobile weather services must be able to alert the mobile user when serious weather is approaching — a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning, for example. This type of service is truly compelling when you add in mobile phone networks’ ability to know where you are — and you receive weather alerts specific to your current physical location, even when traveling.

News sites that publish ski-condition reports will want to include that content in a mobile-content service. Also fishing conditions, road construction reports/alerts, aviation weather alerts, etc.

Traffic reports

This should be one mobile content service in high demand. News publishers that don’t have a reporting infrastructure to produce real-time road reports might want to partner with local TV or radio stations that have their own traffic reporters — or contract with independent traffic reporting companies that work with radio stations. (New companies like Webraska also are emerging to provide real-time traffic information to mobile devices.)

Traffic reports are another mobile content area that demand on-demand audio. After all, you don’t want drivers in heavy traffic looking at a small screen instead of watching the road.

Stocks, company news

Real-time stock prices are expected to be among the hottest content for mobile devices — indeed, many experts believe that personalized notification of stock portfolio changes and the ability to quickly make securities transactions via mobile devices will be a “killer app.” It’s likely that securities companies, brokerages, and banks will be the leaders in bringing mobile users compelling services, such as a mobile-phone alert when one of the stocks you own moves more than 10% in price, for example.

News publishers may try to emulate such services, but it may make more sense to partner with the leaders in this area — melding business news content with sophisticated mobile alert services. So, an online brokerage might transmit an alert about a stock movement to a subscribing mobile user, which also would include a news publisher’s article on the reasons for the price shift.



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