RealTime IT News

Reading Palms: The Future of Content is Small

Trying to squash a standard Web page into a palmtop display's footprint, uh, handprint, is a lot like trying to shoehorn a domed stadium into the average suburban back yard. The real estate just isn't there and the big decisions are all about what to leave out.

So, some of the Web's biggest players -- Bloomberg, CNN, Federal Express and the Wall Street Journal just to name a few -- are getting some decision-making help from San Mateo, Calif., start-up AvantGo which makes server software to shrink desktop content to fit in the palm of your hand. And to make that content easy to find, AvantGo also runs a consumer palm portal that connects users to the miniaturized and optimized content.

Both Forrester Research and IDC both predict that by 2002, some 25 to 40 million people in the U.S. will be using hand-held Internet-connected devices -- mostly palmtops and Net-enabled wireless phones. The small displays and so-far limited bandwidth throw traditional Web design a nasty curve ball: Existing graphics are too large for the screen and download times, palm browsers are more limited in their capabilities and the overall display of a traditional page simply does not work.

Stuart Read, AvantGo's vice president of marketing said their enterprise server helps content providers re-shape their existing content and makes it easier for them to take the additional steps of re-writing HTML to provide truly optimized pages.

In addition, AvantGo offers a palm-optimized content portal where users can access data interactively, or sign up to have selected material pushed to their palm cradle where it can be accessed the next time they synch their devices.

The portal and push are free to users although enterprise server licenses sell for $150 per user. Currently the company makes most of its money from the sales of its server software, but plans on ramping up revenues from e-commerce conducted through its portal operation.

"This is all about content rather than technology," said Rob Enderle, of Giga Information Group. "There's a lot of competition. AvantGo certainly has a chance to be competitive, but it will depend on how much content they can deliver."

In addition to some pretty big names in its content offerings, AvantGo's investor roster doesn't get any blue in the chips: It's raised more than $18.2 million, most of it in June, from a consortium that includes Microsoft, 3Com, Hambrecht & Quist Venture Capital, Adobe Ventures, 21st Century Internet Venture Partners, Fayez Sarofim & Co., and a group of undisclosed private individuals.

The 3Com investment, Read said, "presents quite a challenge," because palm.net -- a 3Com company which provides access to its new Palm VII -- competes against them for content and palm portal visitors. In addition, the content competition includes Palm/AOL, Yahoo's Online Anywhere, Oracle/Panama, Phone.Com and Proxynet.

As with many other DotCom companies, the path to profits is in flux with AvantGo. But the emergence of palm content delivery is also shaking up the profit models of content providers because it complicates the already-troubled world of banner advertising where click-through rates seem to head every lower each month. Limited space and bandwidth add additional incentives for users to adopt text-only viewing modes or to adopt one of the many advertising blocking utilities available.

"The profit models are not clear," for palm-delivered content says Giga's Enderle. "There's just not a lot of real estate [on the display] for advertising." Enderle thinks that sponsorships are subscriptions are likely sources. Micropayments "could be preferable to ads," he said but only if an easy workable solution can be developed.

For centuries now, people have gone to palm readers to get a vision of the future as determined by the length of their life lines and other skin folds. But it doesn't take a psychic to see that the future of e-palms is a long one, filled today with numerous money lines, some of which will undoubtedly live long and prosper and others that likely will meet an abrupt end.

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