by CIO Staff

Wireless B2B E-Commerce Apps Scarce Outside U.S.

Sep 01, 20014 mins

B2B E-COMMERCE APPLICATIONS REMAIN scarce, even in the countries that should be leading the way.

In Japan, they’re called the Thumb Tribe. You can see them on Tokyo’s Hibiya subway line early in the morning: hunched over, staring toward their laps, madly punching Japanese characters into their cell phones with their thumbs. Come lunch-time, they’re at it again?this time on the sidewalk, oblivious of passersby.

They’re hooked up to I-Mode, Japanese telco DoCoMo’s mobile Internet portal. They’re doing the sort of things you’d do on a portal when you have a two-hour commute on the subway?catching up on e-mail, checking a bank balance or playing games.

But are any of them working? Are they checking production schedules or responding to customer requests to change an order? If they are, it’s only via e-mail. As far as I can tell, even in Japan, wireless apps are strictly for consumers.

It’s a picture that is mirrored around the world. We have an acronym?B2B-W, meaning wireless B2B e-commerce?but we don’t have applications. You would think that at least the traditional world leaders in wireless penetration would have something. Following up on that logical hunch, I recently asked my contacts in Brazil, India, Japan, Sweden and England the same question: “What’s going on with B2B-W?”

From Brazil, I heard “Nothing we know of.” From Bombay, there was a similar answer. From Japan, “Just I-Mode.” From Sweden, “Zilch.”

In England, I was sure I would find something. I’ve worked for years with some of the British pub companies, and I figured a pub manager would like to use his Palm Pilot to place orders. Yet even there, despite plans I heard from one company to connect pub managers via a browser, there was nothing.

What About Us?

The same trawl didn’t find much in the United States either. In Cambridge, Mass., Viridien Technologies recently built an application that allows doctors to answer market research questionnaires about treatment results using their wireless devices. Now, market research is not exactly core B2B e-commerce, but this is a good wireless application.

But can we do better than this? Maybe, but no one seems to feel the need. According to Len Tinkoff, chief marketing officer at Viridien, “Large companies are only beginning to think about establishing convergence between wireless and wireline.”

Convergence, of course, is very much one of those flavor-of-the-day terms. For most companies that I’ve spoken to, it means merely pushing a version of their regular apps out to a wireless device. But convergence has to mean more than that. You don’t want to use a wireless device to enter (or even to review) data in SAP. Not at rush hour, not on the Hibiya line. Not when you’re using your thumbs. You want to wait until you’re at the office.

You want to use a B2B-W application only when the balance of urgency against inconvenience merits it. Either the urgency is great?hence the existence of wireless trading applications?or the convenience is superior, as in my pub manager example.

Gotta Start Somewhere

Maybe companies will start with the ultimate in convenience: the fully automatic wireless application, such as a wireless device that broadcasts where a pallet is all the time. Right now, of course, most locator software uses older radio frequency technology, but you know that improvements in wireless are coming. Nonauto-matic B2B-W ought to come more slowly because it seems that most such applications would have to be written especially for wireless. Otherwise, they’d be too inconvenient.

One global (but U.S.-based) consumer packaged goods company that I know of looks to be a good test case. Its IT folks are planning to build wireless applications that will allow owners of small convenience stores to use handheld devices to order their products, instead of phoning in or faxing orders. They’ll start, they’ve said, with a region where wireless-based ordering offers significant cost or convenience advantages over landline communication?Brazil is currently at the head of the pack.

But will it work? It’s a test case that deserves careful attention, if only because any outcome is sure to leave one party?either the company or the store owners?twiddling their thumbs.

David Dobrin is president of B2B Analysts in Cambridge, Mass. His opinions have aired on highways and byways from S‹o Paulo to Mumbai.