Squeezing Web Sites Onto Cellphones
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Businesses Try to Shift Online Communities,
Consumer Forums to Places Tailored for Wireless Users
[by ROGER CHENG] When a group of engineers at National Instruments Corp. modified a 1988 Oldsmobile so it could be controlled by an iPhone, the company was quick to share the project on its online forum for customers.
A spouse «might not care about it, but our community eats it up,» said Deidre Walsh, community and social media manager for National Instruments, a supplier of automation and computer measurement tools.
The Austin, Texas, company has a fostered dedicated online group of 125,000 engineers and scientists with do-it-yourself projects. Its strategy illustrates how companies have increasingly turned to Web communities to build their brand, address customer service problems and unveil new products.
But as people spend more time on their cellphones, many companies are considering taking their message boards, user forums and blogs to mobile devices. National Instruments is considering ways to build a mobile site, Ms. Walsh says but has to resolve issues such as how users can share programming code, which are large files.
Other companies, including technology giant Hewlett-Packard Co., are discussing ways to build their first Web sites specifically for wireless users. «We definitely have work to do to get our Web site mobile friendly,» said Lois Townsend, H-P’s director of community. «We know our customers want it.»
H-P has a financial incentive to expand its community strategy. The forums, which often address problems before a customer has to call the service line, have saved millions of dollars in deflected calls, Ms. Townsend said.
The move to mobile isn’t without challenges. Companies have to decide whether to create a barebones site accessible by even the most basic handset, or opt for a flashier application accessible by select smart phones. Different phones, screen sizes and platforms create headaches for site designers.
Mike Hardy, community manager for Pitney Bowes Inc., says moving the company’s online forums to mobile devices is a «no brainer» though the postage-meter maker is still evaluating technologies to do so.
H-P and Pitney Bowes aren’t the only companies without a mobile-friendly site. Among others without a significant mobile presence are retailer Ikea International A/S, Samsung Electronics Co. and Apple Inc. Samsung says it is exploring the possibility of mobile site but declined to comment further. Ikea and Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.
There are some who believe that the idea of a site designed for phones is becoming less relevant as mobile browsers improve. Most smart phones, for instance, are able to load up sites built for the computer.
Some companies are hesitant to build a mobile site because they want more than just a simple page displaying wares, said Robert Chimsky, a consultant for inCode Telecom. While there are still many companies without a mobile site or application, «given the way things are moving, having a mobile-enabled capability is going to be increasingly important,» Mr. Chimsky said.
Companies, however, have to avoid overloading customers with information. «You have to be very careful of what you’re pushing and how you’re pushing it,» Mr. Chimsky said. «It’s that relevancy angle that’s so hard.»
The cellphone affords the opportunity to be more interactive with customers. That’s where companies such as Lithium Technologies Inc. come in. The Emeryville, Calif., company’s software runs the social components of many traditional Web sites, including those of H-P, AT&T Inc., and Best Buy Co.
Lithium wants to take those forums, blogs and other social-networking elements to cellphones with a service it plans to roll out next year. Beyond its own social-networking tools, the platform will draw in related feeds from services such as Facebook and Twitter.
«A lot of these companies don’t have a mobile site, and right away, they’ll have a lot of content,» said Philip Soffer, Lithium’s vice president of product marketing. «Because the community is active and based on addictive behavior, it’s the kind of thing that works well on mobile phones.»
Lithium declined to provide the pricing for its upcoming service, which would work on any phone.
It’s not the only company looking to bring large corporate sites to the mobile Web. Rival Jive Software Inc., which powers communities for companies like Nike Inc., SAP AG and National Instruments, has opted to go with a program specifically designed for the iPhone.
The Portland, Ore., company last month unveiled an iPhone app that gives corporate workers access to Jive-powered message boards and blogs. While the app is a free download, Jive charges a company $10,000 a year for up to 1,000 users.
For BlackBerry users, the company has a simpler Web interface and email alerts on community developments.
Unlike Lithium, Jive is focused on smart-phone users, noting that sites specifically designed for the devices can do more. «We think the magic happens really when you’re able to go deep with functionality,» said Ben Kiker, Jive’s marketing chief.