[ONLINE] feature

Serving Up the Wireless Web: Content to Go

Ina Steiner

ONLINE, September 2001
Copyright © 2001 Information Today, Inc.


Imagine being able to access Web sites, use enterprise applications, and retrieve email from a mobile phone or handheld device from wherever you happen to be–at home, on the road, commuting, even on vacation! For librarians, it's another component of content management. Evaluating what is becoming available for wireless devices, how valuable it is, which parts of the wireless content are relevant for the organization, and how its accuracy and timeliness fare in comparison with other content is a natural extension of an information professional's collection development activities.

With the limitations of today's wireless devices, no one will be conducting research for his or her PhD using a mobile phone! Yet their portability makes wireless devices ideal for certain kinds of content. Executives can receive alerts and request more detailed information when they have a spare moment away from their desks; salespeople can get the latest news about clients and prospects before a meeting even as they are traveling to the meeting; lawyers can look up cases in a courtroom. The right information at the right time is a librarian's dream, and wireless devices have the potential for fulfilling part of that dream.

The information we demand from wireless devices is immediate, relevant, and served up in manageable bites. In order for research content to take its place next to email and location-based services as "killer apps" for the Wireless Web, however, publishers must reckon with some serious deficiencies in the wireless environment.

Publishers are exploring wireless delivery in the hopes of generating new revenue streams. Given the appetite for information by consumers and professionals in any format at any time and in any context, it's small wonder there is much hype about what's being called "pervasive computing."


Small portable computing devices are able to access desktop data and the Internet without being "plugged in" with wires and cords. Wireless devices include PDAs (personal digital assistants), manufactured by Palm and Handspring; handheld devices like RIM (Research In Motion)'s Blackberry and Compaq's iPaq Pocket PCs; mobile phones; and two-way pagers like the Motorola Talkabout. Some cellular phones are Internet-enabled, and PDAs and handhelds may come with cellular modems.

Web site publishers recognize that graphics-laden, script-running Web sites require greater bandwidth than wireless devices can currently handle. Content providers are, therefore, creating separate Web sites for wireless access. Content created specifically for wireless devices that can access the Internet in real-time and through the PDA synchronization process makes up the Wireless Web. Subsets of data, and in many cases, the entire corpus of data from traditional online sources, are being modified for wireless delivery.

Service providers like AvantGo offer hosted networks that deliver content during the PDA synchronization process. PDA users "sync up" their devices with their desktop computers through a cradle plugged into the desktop. AvantGo offers channels with content from the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo!, The Weather Channel, CNN, Expedia, and more. Every time AvantGo subscribers synchronize, fresh content is delivered to their PDAs. This kind of wireless access to content is especially useful to commuters or others who find themselves with free time away from their desktops. Reading the morning newspaper over coffee on a wireless device, however, seems unlikely.


Publishers wishing to deliver content to wireless devices face several formidable challenges: lack of standards; slow transmission speeds; and limitations in input, navigation, and readability.

Wireless devices use proprietary operating systems depending on the manufacturer. And carriers such as OmniSky and Sprint use different transmission methods and offer a varying degree of coverage throughout the U.S. and Canada. Short messaging services (SMS) that are popular in Europe and Asia allow users to send text messages to someone simply by entering the recipient's phone number. But because both parties must have the same carrier, SMS has been slow to take off in North America.

Wireless data entry is more challenging than using a computer keyboard. A mobile phone's numeric keypad must be "three-tapped" to input letters of the alphabet. Palm and Handspring PDA users utilize a pen-like stylus (unless they invest in a folding "portable" keyboard). A Motorola Talkabout pager offers a tiny alphanumeric keypad. Just think how incon- venient entering a long URL using any of these methods would be. Carriers like OmniSky offer links on their home pages, but space is limited.


Navigation is constrained on wireless devices, few of which use anything remotely like a typical desktop browser with the Back, Forward, and Stop buttons on which we've grown to depend. Output is also limiting. Each mobile device has a different screen size, with varying degrees of readability. A mobile phone has a tiny screen compared to a PDA, which itself is a fraction of the size of a desktop monitor.

Due to small screen size, it is questionable as to whether someone could- or would want to–read a research report or white paper on a mobile phone. Thus, publishers are faced with designing multiple "editions" of their content depending on the device the reader is using.

Some publishers have turned to XML to help them solve this formatting problem. Whereas HTML tags tell software browsers how to display content, XML tags describe the content (information about content's content). Fields like "author," "title," and "date" are possible. Publishers can create XML-based stylesheets for each type of device. A server that recognizes a mobile-phone user would deliver content formatted differently from content destined for a desktop or PDA.

Some third-party vendors offer services that will allow their customers to deliver data through disparate networks, devices, and operating systems. Enterprises and publishers are very concerned with making content "device-agnostic."


Wireless devices have their unique set of challenges for users and publishers, but they also offer a supreme advantage over desktop PCs: their portability. This makes them a perfect device for delivering location-sensitive information. You can conveniently access weather and traffic reports and look up nearby movie theaters and restaurants from any location.

Global-positioning systems and other location-identification technologies will make delivery of location-based information possible without having to key in one's location. Publishers and consumer marketers are especially hopeful about the revenue potential of location-based services.


Mobile users do not want to surf the Web in the same way they would on their desktop computers. In an interview with Andrew Darling in MforMobile.com ("Contextualising Content," March 6, 2001), usability guru Jakob Nielsen said that "mobile users want to get specific, targeted and relevant information immediately, which requires as little scrolling and key input as necessary. Wireless content providers should therefore begin again from scratch and design it specifically with that medium in mind." Quick "look-up" kinds of information are perfectly suited to wireless devices.

Yahoo!'s wireless page is an example of a Web site built from the ground up (http://mobile.Yahoo.com/home). Yahoo! uses a drill-down approach that is limiting and harks back to the early days of the Internet before Web browsers. This Yahoo! site illustrates how publishers must be selective and must simplify the presentation of content for easier readability and navigation.

A comparison of the aforementioned mobile page with Yahoo!'s regular Web site (at http://www.Yahoo.com) demonstrates the problems faced by publishers: How to take all the informa- tion from a "normal" Web site, filter it, and format it for wireless consumption?

Andrew Tofputt ("The Mobile Internet: New Medium, New Content," Internet Content Newsletter, February 27, 2001) says publishers don't have to make all of their content available wirelessly. "In a mobile environment, users want bursts of time-critical information in order to find a solution to accomplish a particular task rather than an ability to surf."

The challenge may not be to port everything to the Wireless Web, but rather (and perhaps an even greater challenge), to figure out which content to port, and how to design with the "medium" in mind. As content providers gain experience with porting content to the Wireless Web, they will find out which approaches work.


Many publishers have created wireless versions of their Web sites, and online database vendors are also exploring ways to deliver content to the Wireless Web. They have developed a variety of implementation strategies.

Some vendors like Northern Light Technology are taking a wait-and-see attitude, reporting that there is little demand from their users for wireless access to content. Ovid Technologies views wireless devices as tools that can be integrated with desktop data, serving particularly well as "requesting devices." Factiva is enabling its content so that enterprises can integrate it with the rest of their internal and external content and deliver it however they choose. West Group is the only large-scale online database vendor to make virtually all of its content available through wireless devices.


West Group released Westlaw Wireless in the spring of 2001, giving subscribers wireless access to virtually all Westlaw and West Legal Directory content, except for images, forms, templates, and selected databases. It has concentrated its efforts on PDA devices and will release content and functionality optimized for mobile phone devices later in 2001. West Group reports that, while PDA usage has been slow to take off outside the U.S., it expects that to change.

West Group has done a significant amount of work to make its content "wireless-ready," including simplifying the user interface and partitioning the documents into five-kilobyte chunks to prevent memory overflow and long wait times. West Group also worked on navigation, making it possible to navigate between documents and between parts of a document. Each result document includes all embedded links and Citator links so that users may refer to any related material mentioned in the documents. New features scheduled to be introduced to Westlaw Wireless in July 2001 include enhanced search functionality to citation searching. Searchers used to enter a citation number, but will now be able to enter a party name as well, such as White versus Black. The July upgrade will also add an option for wireless users to request a link and have the accompanying full text be sent to a desktop email account. Currently, a wireless user may email a link to any email address.


Note that West Group's sister company, Dialog Corporation, is considering a wireless product. Paul Colluci, senior vice president of global product development at Dialog, stated, "While we are aware of the capabilities and benefits of such technology, we also are familiar with the current limitations in the areas of size, graphics, and the like. At this time, we are developing a product with consideration of the value our customers place on receiving their data via these devices, and the way in which customers are using the data received via their phones and PDAs. We're looking at frequency, distribution, and print capabilities."

A West Group spokesperson claims that parent company Thomson Corporation tries out new initiatives on the West Group product lines before rolling them out to its other subsidiaries' lines.


Hoover's Online publishes company information and has been available on a "sync-basis" via AvantGo for over a year. In April 2001, it made its core product available to all wireless devices. While not a "traditional online vendor," Hoover's Online was the first content provider to make all of its offerings available via wireless. CEO Patrick Spain sees wireless access as an extension of the service it provides to customers.

All Hoover's Online information is available via wireless except for some tabular data. While the content is the same as on the Web site, it is formatted into smaller "chunks." And, just as on the Web site, some data is available for free. Users access premium content by logging in with their username and password.

Hoover's Online has always been innovative in its marketing strategies, and it has been successful in leveraging new channels and opportunities.


LexisNexis has been running a pilot program for legal professionals (http://www.lexis.com/wireless), and is still assessing the demand for a permanent program. The pilot offers access to Shepard's along with the Lexsee (Get a Case) and Lexstat (Get a Statute) features from lexis.com.

LexisNexis Europe (LNE) launched a WAP-only concept product trial last year, and research indicates that there is a desire for wireless access. A beta trial is taking place this summer with a view to launching a wireless news and financial information service in the fall. In addition, an alerting feature will be integrated into the user's personal alert system, to be delivered by SMS or email.

Nigel Cope, product research and development director, said that no one knows for sure what the reaction will be, but they will assess customer feedback to determine the next stage of the wireless initiative.

LexisNexis sees wireless as an extension of the interface, not as a separate standalone product. It is committed to testing and getting customer feedback throughout the planning and implementation process.


Ovid Technologies introduced Ovid@ Hand, a current-awareness application for handheld Palm devices geared to the clinical medical arena, at the Medical Library Association conference in May. Clinicians can enter requests for specific information, articles, or searches into their PDAs during the day. The next time they sync up the device with their computer, Ovid@Hand fulfills the request.

Ovid@Hand's "Table of Contents" service is particularly useful. Users set up profiles based on the subscription plans of their institutions. Tables of contents from various journals are then delivered to the handheld upon device synchronization. When users have time to review the table of contents, they check off the titles of articles that they wish to receive in full text. The next time they synchronizes their device, the request is sent to Ovid, which then sends the article citation along with a link to the full-text article to the user's "Personal Library," which is accessed via the user's desktop PC.

Cheryl Chisnell, vice president of clinical & academic products at Ovid Technologies, sees tremendous usage of PDAs in the healthcare market, citing a 15 to 40% reported installed base among physicians. Ovid's wireless strategy is to integrate the handheld and Web environments, in effect making the handheld a "requesting" device.


Factiva said it is starting to get some demand for wireless delivery. "While we are not at liberty to discuss the strategic initiatives of our customers, we do see, in general, a number of companies considering and implementing wireless initiatives," according to Greg Gerdy, vice president and director of product management at Factiva.

Factiva customers want wireless access to their entire intranet. Factiva Select is an XML content feed that allows enterprises to host and integrate news into their content management systems. Developers within the organization can take Factiva content, integrate it with internal and other external content, parse it further, and can then deliver it to many devices, including wireless devices.

Factiva's wireless strategy is to enable the platform, but leave wireless implementation to the enterprise.


Northern Light said the demand for wireless delivery has consistently decreased both in the U.S. and internationally since the initial introduction of wireless technology. It is prepared to implement wireless delivery of content and can perform whatever customization is needed, if it receives requests from enterprise customers.

There are no plans to make the Northern Light public Web site accessible via wireless until there is a specific customer or general consumer demand for such access.

The Gale Group has no wireless initiatives underway, and would not comment on any future plans.


Newspapers were busy competing with each other when the World Wide Web offered spectacular opportunities. Now they will try to work together to compete against established Web publishers in expanding to the wireless medium.

The Newspaper Association of America, a nonprofit organization representing more than 2,000 newspapers in North America, has partnered with Aether Systems to launch a pilot project. The project will help newspapers determine how best to serve mobile readers.

"Local News Gateway" will allow users to access content from multiple participating newspapers via phones and PDAs. It was slated to be up and running in late May at (http://www. lngate.com), according to Melinda Gipson, NAA director of new media business development. A user accesses the gateway either by typing in the URL or by selecting it from a carrier's menu. The user can then start typing the name of a city, and the gateway will route him or her to all available local editions. This approach attempts to overcome the difficulties of typing in long URLs like www.albuquerquejournal.com.

The NAA Local Gateway pilot project will determine what type of content is most valuable to consumers on a wireless platform. The nine-month pilot will also examine the effectiveness and revenue potential of wireless advertising. Newspapers are perfectly positioned to take their expertise in local content and advertising and cross over to the Wireless Web. Some of the most popular AvantGo channels are newspapers. Newspapers have a chance to succeed, especially if they can work together.


The Wireless Web is still in its infancy, but it already offers much research-worthy content. Publishers continue to explore the medium and roll out wireless versions of their products. Technological improvements will lessen the current limitations of wireless devices, and every effort will be made to generate new revenue streams from this distribution channel.

Content providers have developed a variety of strategies to extend their offerings to wireless users. As the use of wireless devices increases and technologies improve, expect to see more demand from users who will expect access to information that is "always on." Content providers will expand their wireless offerings and will also explore ways to offer enterprises content for their intranets and extranets.


The Wireless Web presents excellent opportunities for librarians to take a lead within their organizations. According to Chisnell at Ovid Technologies, librarians can apply their expertise to Wireless content in four areas: training; finding appropriate resources and filtering resources; creating content for wireless; and creating information services, such as document delivery.

Librarians should understand and help formulate their organizations' wireless strategies. Vendors are not pushing wireless content for the sake of technology. They are trying to fill real and anticipated needs of their customers. Librarians will play a pivotal role in conveying the organization's needs and visions to vendors.

Today's Menu

Selected content available to wireless device users:

Offers content from many publishers, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and CNN.

You can search, browse, and bid on items on this popular auction site.

The Economist
The Economist's editorials along with summaries of the week's main events in politics and business.

The Industry Standard
Internet economy news and information from the Industry Standard's Web site.

Johns Hopkins University Antibiotic Guide (ABX Guide)
Information on more than 160 drugs and more than 140 diseases designed to give physicians free and up-to-the-minute information on antibiotics and their proper use.

JungleSoft's JunglePort
Location-based portal for PalmOS handheld devices. JunglePort is a mobile application platform that includes customized city guides (Safaris) with detailed restaurant content, yellow pages listings, and vector-based maps for major U.S. cities.

MSN Mobile Portal
Latest news headlines from MSNBC.com, sports, local weather, stock-tracking, Expedia.com flight information and travel itineraries, lottery results, and more.

Physician's Desk Reference - 2001 PDR for Palm
Prescription drug information including indications, adverse reactions, contraindications, dosage warnings, and how the drug is supplied.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
This wireless site of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer daily newspaper from Seattle, Washington has won several awards.

Vindigo provides location-sensitive information to mobile devices and has signed on with publishers such as Zagat's.

Zacks Investment Research
Market data including detailed quotes, earnings estimates, analyst recommendations, estimates and revisions, earnings surprises, all the indexes, and market movers.

2001 107th U.S. Congress & Federal Pocket Directory Database
Published by Town Compass, includes contact information for 535 U.S. Senators and Representatives and much more. The lists are organized into a three-layer subject hierarchy and an alphabetical index.

Ground Zero: Considerations for Entering the Wireless Web

Wireless Content Initiatives from Traditional Online Companies

Dialog is considering a wireless delivery product.

Factiva has made its content "wireless-ready." Factiva Select is an XML content feed that can be integrated into the enterprise's content management system. Factiva leaves the actual wireless implementation to the enterprise.

Gale Group
Gale Group has no initiatives underway and would not comment on future plans.

Hoover's Online
All of Hoover's Online information, including premium content, is available via wireless except for some tabular data. Hoover's sees wireless access as an extension of the service it provides to customers.

LexisNexis is gathering feedback as it rolls out wireless pilots in the U.S. and U.K. It found that U.S. customers have different expectations than European customers. LexisNexis sees wireless access as an extension of the interface, not as a separate standalone product.

Newspaper Association of America
Many newspapers have already created wireless products and are uniquely suited to serve up local content. The Newspaper Association of America has launched a pilot program to address access issues and explore revenue potential.

Northern Light
Northern Light is prepared to implement wireless programs for enterprise customers, but has seen demand decrease since the initial introduction of wireless technology. It has no plans to make the Northern Light public Web site accessible via wireless at this time.

Ovid Technologies
Ovid@Hand is a product for PDAs that utilizes the PDA synchronization process to make the handheld a requesting device for Ovid subscribers.

West Group
Westlaw Wireless gives subscribers wireless access to virtually all Westlaw and West Legal Directory content through Internet-enabled PDA devices. West Group's product successfully tackles the navigation problems of wireless devices and is setting standards that many providers are sure to follow.

Third Party Vendors

Vendors who can help enterprises and publishers port content and applications to the Wireless Web:

Company Name URL
2ROAM http://www.2Roam.com
Aether Systems Inc. http://www.aethersystems.com
Alter Ego http://aego.com
iConverse http://www.iconverse.com
Motorola, Inc. http://www.motorola.com
OracleMobile http://www.oraclemobile.com
smartRay Network Inc. http://www.smartray.com
MediaWave Group Ltd http://www.mediawave.co.uk
Wysdom http://www.wysdom.com

Ina Steiner (ina@auctionbytes.com) is the editor and publisher of AuctionBytes.com, a content site for online auction users, operations manager for BiblioData, and production editor for Cyberskeptic's Guide to Internet Research.

Comments? Email letters to the Editor at marydee@infotoday.com.

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