December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Where`s wireless?

(Page 3 of 4)

Amazon isn’t talking about its wireless program. But those who work with the Internet’s biggest retailer, including Palm, know that Amazon’s wireless program targets returning customers who already know in advance the merchandise they want to order or just want a more convenient way to shop when they’re away from the computer. With the Palm VII and access to Palm.net Service, the company’s PDA wireless plan, Amazon shoppers can shop Amazon’s U.S. site as well as customized sites in a number of European countries.

The target audience isn’t large compared to Amazon’s established base of 5 million shoppers. But Amazon shoppers who have invested in a Palm 7 hand-held device that’s web-enabled and connected to a wireless Internet carrier can pull-up Amazon Anywhere, see a menu of products in the book, CD, toy, video game and electronic merchandise category and place a secure shopping order.

“The wireless shopper is an extremely attractive demographic to go after and Amazon is seeing that now,” says Jim Kruger, director of product marketing for Palm Computing. “They know that the wireless market will evolve eventually and they are preparing for the day it will become more mainstream.”

For the immediate future, most merchants-if they are doing anything at all-are using wireless retailing as a marketing tool to drive off-line traffic. And while mobile e-commerce isn’t expected to catch on quickly, some analysts contend that a “wait-and-see” attitude is better than no attitude at all.

“The barriers are large and mobile web shoppers in the United States today are a very fragmented group, says Peter O’Kelley, a senior wireless analyst for the Patricia Seybold Group. “But if Europe is an indicator, then wireless retailing is going to catch on sometime. It’s potentially too big to ignore and retailers at least need to keep it on their business development radar scope.”

Mark Brohan is publisher and editor of Chicago-based EC Technology News.

How Barnes & Noble built a successful wireless app

Others may be holding back when it comes to wireless, but not bn.com-the web site of bookselling giant Barnes & Noble. It jumped on wireless and today has one of the few operational wireless connections that is actually moving product. “We hope to open a new distribution channel,” says Robert Albert, director of mobile strategies of bn.com’s On the Go program. “We’d like to capture new customers as well as provide a convenient and accessible product to our old ones.”

Barnes & Noble didn’t hesitate when it learned about wireless in the summer of 1999. “We had an early partnership with Palm and Sprint,” Albert says. “Preliminary examination of the idea showed there would be a huge niche in the market, and we wanted to be on the leading edge.” The project was a little under a year in development.

On the Go, an extension of the Barnes & Noble web site, allows customers to shop online anywhere. The program allows users access to nearly everything in the bn.com inventory and includes a store locator with auto dialing and the Listening Wall, which allows users to hear clips from the top 10 CDs via a toll-free number.

Once Barnes & Noble decided to pursue the On the Go strategy, coding for the Palm aspects of the program took three months. The cellular portion required somewhat longer because of the wide variety of phones consumers use. The Palm 7 portion of On the Go was launched last December, while the mobile phone portion went live in May.

In deciding which features to include in On the Go, the company’s biggest concern was how to parse down bn.com for wireless access. “We had to asking ourselves what features and functionalities will fit, given the medium the user will be accessing us through,” Albert says. In the end, Barnes & Noble relied on market research, focus groups, input from fellow booksellers and just plain common sense.

A major challenge was designing the site for the smaller Palm or cell phone screen. The site was run through two and a half weeks of usability tests. The Palm 7 aspects of On the Go require the user to download program-specific software (available at the web site) before accessing the site, while Palm 5 users need only an OmniSky modem, which installs the bn.com application with the modem software.

A customer uses one of two methods to find the desired purchase. On cellular phones, On the Go uses drill-down menus to reduce the need to type search queries. “It’s difficult to use the keypad on a cell phone to input anything but numbers,” Albert says. “So we presented our merchandise in a series of categories that grow as the user selects them. “Users browse through the lists, following links downward in the hierarchy until they find the title they want.”

Information is presented differently on the Palm, which has a more user-friendly interface. “The drill downs are still there,” Albert says, “but they aren’t as important, and the users can type in specific search queries.” On the Go allows users to access their existing online accounts with Barnes & Noble, offering the convenience of not having to re-input information such as shipping and billing specifics.

In addition, On the Go is integrated into backend services and databases that drive bn.com, says project manager David McCarthy: “The upshot from a database perspective is that we required no new servers, software, or coding.”

Barnes & Noble did, however, add web servers that could handle On the Go content in handheld device markup language. Also, an XML application server was needed to communicate with the backend Microsoft SQL Server databases and generate the HDML pages accessed by users. Albert won’t tell On the Go’s start-up costs but says it was a significant investment. “This was not a weekend project,” he says.

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