There is currently no bigger buzz in the IT and telecoms market than Wireless Application Protocol (Wap). The idea of delivering Internet-based information to a mobile phone has caught the imagination of both businesses and gadget-hungry end-users alike.
A number of high street banks have already nailed their colours to the Wap mast. Barclays, NatWest and The Woolwich have all announced plans to trial banking via Wap-enabled devices. But new technology comes at a price, and Wap demands new skills and investment to ride the initial training storms.
Delivering information to mobile phones from Internet sites is not an easy process. Although Wap's primary aim is to provide an interactive service with Web sites, the current reality is that a lot of work has to be done behind the scenes to get the relevant information to the phone.
Using the Wap phones themselves does not demand a considerable amount of learning. The real skill is in implementing Wap services. For many of the major companies that have made noises about delivering Wap trials, the solution so far has been to outsource and enter into joint development agreements.
The Woolwich, for example, has teamed up with Vodafone to supply 100 of its customers with Wap phones and wireless access to its Woolwich Open Plan integrated banking service. Much of the content is being supplied by Reuters and aggregated for the Woolwich by i2mobile.com.
The idea is to give these 100 users the ability to view account balances, pay bills and transfer money etc over the Internet from a mobile phone. In addition, other information such as news, weather and sport, is also accessible using the phone.
The Woolwich is using the Nokia 7110 Wap phone, which is connected to a Nokia Wap server over Vodafone's GSM network. There is full 128-bit encryption between the phone and The Woolwich's systems.
Not all mobile operators have launched Wap services yet. One2One came close to launching, making noises about delivering its service in March this year, but failed. One2One is now concentrating its message on how it intends to provide an "unrestricted" service to enable subscribers to access Wap sites of their choice, while simultaneously promoting partner sites with content specially tailored for One2One users.
The company also anticipates an autumn 2000 launch for a GPRS-based offering. UK mobile network operator BT Cellnet is also heavily promoting its Wap-enabled Internet service called Genie. Those who subscribed to Genie in March took part in a prize draw, receiving an SMS message detailing the company's latest promotion. The prize was a free Wap phone - which the company has labelled a BT Cellnet Internet Phone.
BT Cellnet will also offer customers the ability to buy cinema and train tickets as well as view share prices and conduct mobile commerce. A major brand-awareness campaign is already underway, and BT appears to be trying to gain early ground in the market by talking up its services in the face of a barrage of potential competition.
Despite its seemingly industry-wide support, there are Wap doubters in the market. Like any new development, there are undoubtedly cracks and bugs to try and sort out.
According to the latest report from Ovum, the UK-based market analyst, Wap won't be an overnight success. The report is entitled Mobile IP and the lead author is Iain Stevenson. "While innovations such as Wap are paving the way for enhanced mobile services, limited bandwidth capabilities and inability to automatically recreate many types of Web content for display on handsets questions whether or not Wap will be able to deliver on its goals," Stevenson explains.
Stevenson also warns that although the "grand vision" of network integration is highly desirable, the reality is that the industry will not deliver it overnight.
There is also the criticism that the service can be misleading. Users that are familiar with Web browsing may feel unsure about finding their way around text-based information.
"Cutting down on the presentation of Internet pages is not acceptable," says Richard Harris, managing director of mobile data services specialist Cognito. "Users are used to full HTML browsing. If you are cutting down on presentation you are compromising the content."
Cognito has developed its own IP-based mobile data solution that supports full HTML browsing, so it is no surprise Harris is a little critical of Wap.
Cognito's IP network solution uses its own Windows CE-based handheld devices to enable users to browse the Web and communicate. Harris refers to it as "a bespoke implementation of a controlled service, as opposed to a general service". "Corporates like this level of control," he says.
The real issue here is that Cognito has been delivering text-based information solutions for the past few years and watching Wap emerge has been somewhat strange for the company.
Harris admits that, in terms of skills, mobile data can be demanding for the supplier. But the devices, whether they are mobile phones or Cognito's own Messager device, are intended to be user-friendly and much of the technology is invisible.
For Wap to really take off it has to overcome its initial hiccups. And the general criticisms of Wap are, at the moment at least, well founded. It is, for example, difficult to configure Wap phones for new Wap services, with 20 or so different parameters needing to be entered to gain access to a Wap service.
There are also few mobile phones that support Wap, and widespread Wap support in handsets is unlikely for a long time. Wap is also a protocol that runs on top of an underlying bearer. None of the existing GSM bearers for Wap - the Short Message Service (SMS), Unstructured Supplementary Services Data (USSD) and Circuit Switched Data (CSD) - are currently optimised for Wap.
Then there is the cost issue. Wap services are expected to be expensive to use, since the tendency is to be online for a long CSD call. Although GPRS-based services should address this, Wap on GPRS will not be rolled out until later this year.
The technologies competing with the Wap protocol are also intriguing. Known entities such as Java, Windows CE and the use of Sims or smartcards all pose a threat to Wap, and are being taken seriously as either viable alternatives or complementary technologies.
From a skill-set point of view, these competing technologies have the advantage of requiring far less training than Wap, due to the fact that they are already in abundance in other devices and forms of software.
Virgin Mobile is already in discussions with smartcard giant Gemplus over the conversion or replacement of existing phone Sim cards to provide Wap-equivalent services. But the most interesting development here is PersonalJava and the JavaPhone API being developed by Sun Microsystems.
JavaPhone API is being embedded in a Java virtual machine on the handset. This means that manufacturers will be able to build cellular phones that can download extra features and functions over the Internet. Thus, customers will no longer be required to buy a new phone to take advantage of improved features.
However, Wap has its own significant advantages in that it is an open standard and is therefore supplier-independent. It is also network standard-independent, and the transport mechanism is optimised to support wireless data bearers.
The services available to Wap users will be wide-ranging. This is because of the open specifications of Wap, its similarity to the established and accepted Internet model, and the simplicity of the Wireless Markup Language (WML) in which the applications will be written. Information will be available in push and pull functionality, with the ability for users to interact with services via both voice and data interfaces
With over 75% of the world's key handset manufacturers already involved in the Wap Forum, the success of the protocol is almost guaranteed. Understanding how to be a part of that success and utilising the technology to its full potential is still a difficult task given the fact that it is still early days.
The bottom line is that the remit for any Wap services will fall under the umbrella of a business' existing IT department. Bringing in mobile data specialists to deal with Wap services will be almost essential, but for those mobile specialists the learning curve for Wap is not steep. However, the whole Wap service thing has a real ring of outsourcing about it. Expect a number of Wap content providers, consultants and solution providers to emerge over the coming months.
The impetus behind the Wireless Application Protocol (Wap) is easy to follow. Take any digital mobile handset, build in a Wap browser and it can access Internet based-information from anywhere in the world.
Viewed from the handset manufacturers' perspective, this is a gift. It means that the same browser will work in the US (in CDMA, TDMA, and GSM phones), in Japan (JDC), Korea (CDMA) and in Europe and the rest of the world (GSM).
In very simplistic terms, a Wap browser is a program that strips out all the fancy HTML coding leaving just text. However, Wap is more intelligent than that, so it requires a gateway to convert raw IP (Internet Protocol) into Wap-based protocols.
Something like the Waplite gateway server (available through Now Distribution) can sit between Wap phones and PDAs (like the Ericsson MC218) and standard e-mail servers such as Microsoft Exchange.
There are currently two major drawbacks - one being a dearth of Wap 1.1-enabled handsets. There is only the L7389 from Motorola and the 7110 from Nokia, with the R320 from Ericsson still to come.
Secondly, there are no slick HTML to WML (Wap Markup Language) tools, so Wap sites are still hand-coding pages. Consequently, the UK's mobile operators are launching SMS (short message service) versions of their Wap services so that those with non-Wap phones can get an inkling of what Wap will offer.
Think of Prestel - the old modem version of teletext - and exactly the same sectors are targeted by Wap. Namely share prices, news, travel info, home banking, etc.