Wireless: Other Platforms, Other Rules

How should CFOs in the United States view the wireless Web revolution taking place in Europe? As coming attractions.

By US standards, these offerings are well ahead of their time. By European lights, they’re late to the game. Ted Bechman, CFO of Gameplay.com (www.gameplay.com), Europe’s largest online games destination, says his company embraced alternative Web platforms early on. “The belief in our company is that in order to dominate the games space, we need to be present on all relevant platforms,” he explains. “Gameplay’s offerings cover the Web and iDTV (interactive digital television), as well as the traditional methods, such as telephone retail. The company also has a multiuser gaming service and a WAP portal, which is under trial.”

While wireless data is set to explode, so too is iDTV. According to researcher Jupiter Communications, one in three homes in Western Europe will receive digital television by 2003. Deciding what Web content to make available on iDTV won’t be easy. “Companies that simply port their Internet strategy onto iDTV will fail,” notes Noah Yasskin, an Internet strategy analyst at Jupiter. “Interactive DTV is not the Web on TV.”

Technology experts say corporate managers need to be equally careful about the data they serve up to their wireless customers. Although the protocols and description languages for WAP sites and Web sites are similar — intentionally so — wireless sites require special attention. “A Web site is not a WAP site at all,” says Matthew Nordan, the European Internet commerce analyst for Forrester Research. “It’s not as though you create a Web site and run it through a WAPalizer and connect it to a mobile phone.”

Indeed, the wireless Web protocol serves up smaller bits, or cards, of queued-up data. Things like train schedules, email, stock quotes, and news flashes seem ideally suited for handheld devices. Applications that require installation scripts, graphics, complex menu structures, or complicated key sequences are best left in the wired universe. “We believe we can provide content that can be used in the WAP arena,” says Bechman. “If we felt, say, that the games we could provide are too big to be used on a WAP phone, we might wait.”

Space Invaders

In the Information Age, waiting can be deadly. That puts some serious pressure on CFOs, who must assess whether their corporate Web offerings will play on alternative platforms — and whether an investment in a platform will provide an ample return. This is complicated by the fact that few finance directors are tech- heads. “I have not met that many CFOs who understand the technology,” concedes Lionel Anciaux, the Brussels-based head of WAP at EuropeanInvestor.com (www.europeaninvestor.com). “But it is an economic decision on alternative platforms. Often, the technology is so new that it is difficult to guarantee returns.”

Worse yet, finance directors in Europe are finding they often have to ditch old ideas about return on investment when examining outlays on alternative platforms. “Looking at it from a CFO perspective, a different set of rules apply,” Bechman explains. Those rules have very little do to with IRR or ROI. “It is about domination of space,” he says, “rather than the traditional methods of measuring success.”

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