"Janne Valkealahti peers at his cell phone and presses a few keys, swiftly dumping about $14,000 of stock on the Helsinki exchange. Thanks to his phone's wireless connection, Valkealahti is invisibly tethered to the Internet and to the Web site of eQ On-line, the brokerage house where he works.
"It's an impressive demonstration, but then this is Finland. Last year the nation found itself anointed the Silicon Valley of the wireless Web, and it has been basking in the glow ever since. Fueled by incredible cell-phone usage--nearly three out of four Finns carry one--and the presence of phonemaker Nokia, start-ups here are working to put the Web everywhere, and get rich too.
"Finland's wireless wizards dream of blazing a new on-line frontier that will turn their start-ups into global giants. Indeed, this month's megamerger deal between Mannesmann and Vodafone AirTouch was driven by the potential of a wireless Web.
"But even as the world hails Finland as ground zero for the wireless revolution, some of its entrepreneurs are already asking themselves how long they can maintain their momentum. The answer will make or break a few embryonic fortunes. It will also indicate to what extent the Web has already fallen irrevocably under the sway of a few U.S. companies.
"One of the stars of Helsinki's start-up scene is Jari Ovaskainen, the founder and CEO of Iobox Oy. His ambitions are nothing short of staggering. "We expect to be mentioned in the same breath as AOL and Yahoo!," says Ovaskainen in his office a few blocks from the Mannerheimintie, a main thoroughfare in Helsinki's city center.
"In fact, Iobox expects to be the Yahoo! of wireless phones. The company operates a Web portal tailored to the needs of mobile Net surfers. More than 400,000 people use it to check their calendars, read and write e-mail and even order CDs.
"Iobox is quickly leaving its Finnish roots behind. Though research and development will remain in Helsinki, the company's headquarters is moving to London, a beachhead from which Ovaskainen and his colleagues hope to dominate one European market after another. "Our goal is, when you think mobile, you think Iobox," he says.
"To truly appreciate the future envisioned by Iobox and the others, you need the latest phone. The hot one here now is the 7110 model introduced last year by Nokia. It uses WAP, the wireless application protocol standard, to zap Web content around. The phone is a distinctive forest green and has a tiny screen that can display Web menus and stock charts. Though the phone is still in short supply, nearly every high-tech executive in Helsinki seems to have one.
"Hannu Bergholm uses his to show off one of the more popular wireless applications in Finland, a service that beams jokes onto phones. Swedish jokes, to be specific. Bergholm is the managing director of Wapit, a start-up that's developing systems to take standard Web content and easily beam it onto WAP-enabled phones. The company is known for both its wireless services and its co-founder, Mato Valtonen, a longtime member of the Helsinki rock band Leningrad Cowboys, Finland's answer to Spinal Tap.
"Valtonen says he knows Wapit's fate may be acquisition by a U.S. company. So do the programmers the company recruits. Valtonen says job candidates routinely ask if Wapit plans to sell out soon. But, he adds, "We have a dream. We are not building this just for someone to buy it out."