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Europeans slow to embrace wireless Web

Industry Standard

(IDG) -- Europeans are generally regarded as pioneers in wireless technology. But figures released recently by two companies indicate that people on the Continent have been slow to embrace the wireless Internet.

Many of the latest gadgets for accessing the Internet -- cellular phones and other handheld devices -- use an international standard called wireless access protocol, or WAP. Internet research firm IDC predicts that within two years more than 1 billion WAP-enabled mobile phones will be in use across Europe.

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But so far only 6.1 million people in Europe are using Internet-enabled phones, according to Forrester Research, and it doesn't look like that number is going to surge soon.

Deutsche Telekom's (DT) T-Mobile unit said in July that less than 1 percent of the company's 13 million mobile-phone customers have bought its Internet-enabled cell phones, which have been available for six months. About a third of this 1 percent have never used the phones to access the Internet. And of those who have, most do less than once a week. Other wireless providers report similarly low usage across Europe, with the exception of Scandinavia.

WAP's woes began with only a few handsets on the market in the first quarter of the year, which frustrated consumers. And once consumers buy an Internet-enabled phone, it's not clear to them what to do with it. A few applications such as location-based directories and stock quotes are popular, but there aren't many other uses.

"The applications aren't there," says Matthew Nordan, a senior analyst with Forrester Research in Amsterdam.

Companies trying to make wireless access to the Net part of people's daily lives have had limited success. First-e, a French Internet bank with operations in the United Kingdom, revealed in July that its wireless-banking service has attracted just 100 customers in the six months since it launched. The bank originally hoped to have 100,000 wireless customers by the end of the year, but now it's shooting for 10,000.

"With hindsight, we were probably a bit ambitious," admits Tim Simpson, the head of First-e's digital channels.

Woolwich, a U.K.-based bank, has achieved better results. Its wireless service has reeled in 11,000 customers since its April launch. The secret of its success is that it treats wireless as a customer service rather than a technology, according to Janette Winter, Woolwich's head of e-commerce. "We had to be able to sell it in a way that would make people want to use it," she says.

Despite the slow takeoff of these kinds of Internet services, most European companies are still preparing to go wireless. Ninety percent of European firms plan to install technology that will simplify and translate their Web content so mobile devices can handle it, according to Forrester.

It is possible that businesses can overcome the glitches that inevitably accompany new technologies, and that consumers are waiting for WAP to become more established before they buy in. But so far, companies planning wireless Internet services for their customers do not have a clear answer to that age-old business question: "If we build it, will they come?"

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