Make way for a mobile revolution

 

Internet pioneer Colm Grealy believes the iPad marks a turning point for the online industry, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

AN APPLE iPad is sitting on the table in the offices of Adforce.ie, just off Camden Street, and Colm Grealy is excited. “2010 is, we think, going to be a major turning point for the online industry,” he says as he taps in to a website using the device’s touchscreen interface. “From here on, the industry we’ve built around the PC is going to change.”

You could say it’s just more hype about the iPad. But you wouldn’t want to underestimate Grealy – he has had a knack over two decades of seeing possibilities in technologies and media slightly ahead of the curve.

Though he’s not as much in the public eye as at the height of the dotcom era, Grealy is one of Ireland’s pioneers in the internet industry. Along with Barry Flanagan, he established Ireland On-Line (IOL), one of Ireland’s first internet service providers, back in 1994. The two ran the company out of a sitting room in Galway.

Grealy’s job was to drive around, knocking on the doors of businesses to demonstrate this new thing called the internet. He says that once businesses saw it on their office computers, they almost always wanted it. He always carried a few modems around with him in the car so that he could say, “Well, I just happen to have an extra modem in the car . . .” Sale made.

He recalls going onto a programme on RTÉ in the mid-90s to show the internet to the rest of the country. After the programme aired, he got a call from a woman interested in “getting the internet”. When he explained to her that she would need to have a computer and a modem to enable a IR£35 monthly internet subscription to work, she filed a complaint with RTÉ accusing him of running a scam. He was, she claimed, really just trying to sell expensive computers to people.

He laughs at the memory. It was an era of expensive, clunky, putty coloured PCs, a command-line rather than windows-style visual interface for interacting with a computer, and modems that went through the raspy shriek of an electronic “handshake” every time a user dialled in via a landline to connect to the internet. It all certainly seems a long way away from the thin, wireless connected touchscreen iPad lying silently on the table.

Grealy himself has been through several incarnations since he and Flanagan sold Ireland On-Line to An Post (which later sold the company to ESAT Telecom, which then became part of BT Ireland, where IOL lives on). He went on to co-found DigiServe, a media group that included the portal site Online.ie, IrishAbroad.com, EDO Software Services and – in an unusual reverse from online back into print – the short-lived but ambitious Dublin Daily newspaper.

“It was a bit ahead of its time,” he says of the latter. The paper may not have been an online venture, but it was structured around many of the advantages the internet offered, such as using an online design format, which gave the ability to do fast, last-minute changes and updates and include the latest small ads, giving the paper an advantage over slower competition.

As a free paper, such a publication might well have found its niche, but it was a bit too early for that particular model.

After a period of working on various projects, for example advising O2 Telefonica on mobile internet strategies, Grealy is back now with DRG.ie (Digital Reach Group), which is focused on the mobile internet area. The first company launched within that umbrella is Adforce.ie, which works with media agencies and brands wanting to place advertising across a wide range of online sites.

That’s why Grealy has an iPad – he sees it, and future devices like it, as central to a revolution happening in the whole online space.

People are moving away from using a laptop for online access – instead it is becoming a work tool, while people “snack on media” and communicate using smart phones and now, the iPad. He’s already dug into just about every site that has been restructured for iPad use, and flips through several of these, analyzing the possibilities of embedding video, direct links to purchase items, streaming radio. Media formats are converging.

Photography will get a new life online with a device like the iPad, he says.

“There’s a whole new opportunity – in design, development, and the creative industry,” he says. “But anyone in content is going to have to profoundly rethink how they’re going to deal with the move to online.” The iPad and mobile internet generally offers far more sophisticated interactive opportunities than the yawn-making banner ad.

By 2013, the mobile phone is going to overtake the PC as the most common web access device worldwide, according to analysts Gartner, he says. Add to that the iPad and whatever devices it spawns. “We’re talking about repurposing the web. Irish companies are really going to have to think about mobilising their resources. How do you present and deliver for the mobile internet?”

And the change is coming fast. “Where the web took five years to develop, mobile internet will take 18 months. With that change comes vast opportunity and also significant risk for those who wait. The mobile internet is going to be 50 per cent of how we will want to connect.”

DRG is already working on iPod applications for Irish clients in advance of the device being available here in coming months. They’ve also launched a scannable bar code for advertising that lets mobile phone users point their camera at the code to be taken directly to further online information.

Is this new era and its technological advances the most exciting time for an online pioneer? He laughs.

“They are all different phases. The first time we saw a web browser was very exciting. Even moving from a slow modem to a faster modem.

“This is the next phase. It’s the same Internet. We’re just connecting in new ways.”