Where there's the Web, there are ads. And now that the Web has gone wireless, those ads may start to beep in your pocket. Mobile Internet advertising is here, and its buzz is growing louder.
Until now, mobile advertising has kept under the radar, often taking the form of plain-old e-mail spam. For instance, each AT&T Wireless phone comes equipped with an e-mail address comprised of the user's phone number followed by "@mobile.att.net," so spamming is as easy as random number generation. Neither requested nor welcome, mobile spam is more invasive than its plugged-in counterpart, sounds off when dumped on a text-messaging screen, and clutters the limited space of a wireless in-box.
Some wireless carriers make easier spam targets than others. But according to Dan Youmans, a spokesperson for AT&T Wireless, no customers have complained. "When one URL sends huge amounts of information, the network will usually stop it," he says. Nick Nicholas, a volunteer at the Mail Abuse Prevention System, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting spam, believes that the frequency of wireless mail violations will increase as spammers learn to beat the blocking systems. "I expect it will be more of a problem in the future."
Blocking spam will make the airwaves safe for other, more legitimate advertising. It's a market many drool over: More than 80 million people in the U.S. use wireless phones, and quite a few have handheld computers that now come Internet-ready. But Bob Bogard, director of marketing communications at Geoworks Corporation, which has a wireless advertising network called Mobile Attitude, dismisses mobile spam as an ineffective. "The last thing we want to do is turn off our customers with unwanted advertising," Bogard says, "because once we do, they won't come back."
On the other hand, SmartRay.com, a New York-based startup that sends time-sensitive blips such as stock quotes and wake-up calls to its subscribers, boasts that mobile spam has helped spark interest in its service. "We used grassroots e-mail marketing to generate consumer awareness, and our network has grown as a result," says Claire Moynihan, SmartRay's director of marketing communications. "When a lot of people started getting messages, word began to spread."
Bogard predicts that by 2001 all wireless phones will feature a government-mandated Global Positioning System connection that can pinpoint the location of its carrier within a city block in the event of a 911 emergency. When advertisers get a hold of that location information, look out for instant messages like: "Hungry? Make a right at the next light and stop in for a half-price burger and fries!"
But the new age of mobile advertising may leave businesspeople who just want to check in with the office and eat their lunch in peace with a bitter taste in their mouths.