I had just arrived in Madrid for a welcome cocktail party after a long day in Stockholm. And I had spent the night before in a plane from New York to Stockholm. So when Jorge Mata, CEO of MyAlert.com, offered to do a demo of his wireless portal, my heart sank. You know the drill: the whole thing takes half an hour and can put you to sleep when you're wide awake, let alone when you're about to keel over.
But before I could register my lack of enthusiasm, Mata had pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and was well into the demo. 'You want to know who's winning the Grand Prix?' he asked, misreading my expression entirely. Then we went on to more familiar territory - high-tech stock quotes. Online trading isn't available yet, but just wait! The demo illustrated the compelling nature of wireless applications, and the reason that Europe's internet use is likely to explode this year Wireless is so easy to use, it's local, it's ubiquitous, and millions of people are already comfortable with the devices.
'We created MyAlert.com in May 99,' explained Mata. 'The idea was to push the wireless and the personalisation. Anything that works with e-commerce you should be able to do on wireless.' What's exciting, he noted, is that the wireless networks know where their users are. That's tremendously useful - as long as it's done with the user's consent. Applications include everything from local restaurant suggestions to traffic advice and notifications that you'd better leave for your flight because the plane takes off in 90 minutes. You can get an alert that your favourite singer will be in town and you can buy a ticket to the show online, or you can get an alert that the CD you were looking for is available at a price that might interest you. MyAlert.com now has about 120,000 direct users in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, who receive alerts via the cheap SMS (Short Message Service). What's more, the service is typically free for users, being sponsored by advertisers and other businesses.
This is all very exciting, of course, and I want mine in the US, too! But it raises interesting questions. First, there's more to the internet than e-commerce and transactions. Wireless access lacks rich data. The kinds of visualization tools that make the web easy to navigate can't do their stuff; users are likely to get a single, limited answer to a query rather than a sense of the possibilities. Will wireless reduce the richness of the net and turn it into a sterile place where only transactions, actions and alerts count? That's a tendency that people will fight - by using other, richer media as well, and by using their cell phones for real-time conversations even as they are travelling towards those rich, physical encounters with other people that they have arranged to meet with short, wireless messages.
But wireless poses another socio-political issue in Europe: just as cable operators in the US may have undue control over internet access for many customers, so do the wireless operators in Europe threaten to limit people's access to any but their own services. When users get a single answer to a question, who chooses the answers they get? Is it the cell-phone company? An advertiser? Users - and regulators - should make sure they know the answer.
Esther Dyson chairs Icann, the committee assigning net names worldwide. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.