Since the Wireless Application Protocol (Wap) exploded onto the scene last year, the whole world seems to have gone mobile crazy. The number of Wap services launched in the past quarter has been astonishing as content providers attempt to capture people's attention while they're on the move.
Unfortunately, as with many new technical phenomena, the marketing types have put a very optimistic gloss on Wap's potential, and it has been left to the analysts to come up with a more realistic interpretation of mobile Internet access. GartnerGroup analyst Andy Butler highlighted some of the limitations of the technology at the company's Florence symposium in April, pointing out that data access is still relatively slow, and that the footprints of the smart phones available to consumers were still too small to make data displays intuitive.
Ben Last, consultant technologist at Amaze, a consultancy specialising in e-commerce issues, agrees that the nature of the personal digital assistants (PDAs) must change if Wap is to succeed. Smart phones only look like phones at all because we are used to dealing with mobile devices in a telephone-like format. Ideally, the smart phone will evolve to become more of a PDA-type product in the future, he argues. "The portable information appliance connected to the Web shouldn't necessarily be a phone," Last says. "It should have a decent-sized colour screen."
Another issue affecting the uptake of Wap is the type of service companies can offer using the protocol. Dennis Gaughan, senior analyst for e-business infrastructure at independent research and business advisory company AMR, says all of the services currently on offer have a business-to-consumer focus, concentrating on delivering information such as stock prices and news. He explains that the real cash lies in business-to-business applications at present, and he questions the viability of the wireless protocol and Wap devices in this area.
Michael Walton, chief executive officer of e-commerce consultancy Rubus, still believes that the telecommunications carriers will make money from Wap by charging customers for access. The big problem is the restricted nature of the services. "At the end of the day, you're looking at an inch square screen and a low data rate," he points out. "You wouldn't want to buy flowers over a Wap phone - the only thing you might want would be confirmation that some flowers had arrived. It's so restrictive."
With services so restricted, how can marketing people sell them? One of the problems for marketing departments is that they are attempting to sell Wap as a funky, cool service to people who don't see themselves as technology aware, argues Last. In reality, however, the Wap audience is made up largely of early adopters. "The audience for the stuff is still geeky," he points out.
Damien Peachey, campaigns manager for BT Cellnet, is one of those marketing people that Last says has a mammoth task on his hands. In charge of marketing the company's Genie Wap service, Peachey's view of the Wap world is quite different.
The service, which currently has 70 active content providers, will eventually take Wap content from 130 business partners, says Peachey. "People want a suite of tailored services that they will access everyday," he says. "We have left the ability to go anywhere you like with it, but you really have about six killer applications, with e-mail as a vanguard."
The idea of banging out long e-mails using a numeric keypad is laughable - dialing 0800 WapHAPPY is one thing, but preparing long e-mails using current handsets is quite another, which is another reason why smart phones will need to evolve.
Better bandwidth is one of the key drivers for the evolution of mobile data services, and the introduction of high-speed services, such as General Packet Radio Service, over the next year will make it possible to send more data over wireless links than before. When third generation Universal Mobile Telecommunications System technology evolves, bandwidth will be even more readily available.
Some pundits believe that increased bandwidth will make Wap much more popular, but Last has yet to be convinced. He believes that the technical design for Wap is far too focused on the current bandwidth problem. There will still be a place for Wap, he says, but points out that no technology has ever worked out as its inventors thought it would - Alexander Graham Bell originally thought that the telephone would be used for public broadcasts of remote concerts.
Nevertheless, in spite of market scepticism, there are some potentially interesting Wap applications. Location-specific data is an exciting possibility for service providers who can use digital networks to triangulate radio signals and pinpoint a handset's position. Wap users could use such a service to find out where their nearest police station, petrol station or Indian restaurant is. Companies such as Whereonearth.com are developing geospatial databases of infrastructural information for just this purpose, and while he was not prepared to give any details, Peachey hints that BT Cellnet is working on a similar service.
There is too much impetus behind Wap for the protocol to die now, so it will definitely be around in some form or other in the future. As bandwidth and client devices evolve, however, it is likely that Wap will also change dramatically. Gaughan predicts the introduction of more graphical capabilities into the protocol, and the provision of location-based services, will definitely be a killer application for Wap.
Wap services are still growing strong
Wap services and Wap-enabled applications have been springing up rapidly in the past few months.
Here are just some of them:
Maconomy.com provides a Wap-based Time and Expense Recording solution as part of its Enterprise Project Optimisation software.