The mobile world has reached a watershed. GPRS and wireless LANs hold the fort, while frontrunners research the way ahead.
Before the four existing UK mobile operators won a third-generation (3G) licence - along with Tetra-based wireless specialist Dolphin, which got the fifth licence up for grabs - they were all committed to rolling out WAP solutions to offer their users a greater choice of data services. Current WAP-enabled phones are portrayed as Internet phones, but they are not: the mobile Internet world is currently being built using the data access gateways or portals of the existing mobile operators.
Although One-2-One has failed to launch any sort of commercial WAP service, the other three - Orange, BT Cellnet and Vodafone - have all launched portals to allow other content providers to offer data to WAP users.
Vodafone, for example, offers its WAP directory which allows the likes of a local squash club to be listed as a "site" alongside sites belonging to soccer club fans affiliated to Peterborough United and Manchester City in the sports listings of its Vodafone Interactive service.
Users of both Nokia 7110 handsets and Motorola Timeports can sample the delights of who won how many points in a Hertfordshire squash match or what Noel Gallagher thinks about the latest goings at his beloved Manchester City.
What is lacking in all these sites is an easy way for businesses to have their details accessed by WAP users and potential customers. Initially it was feared that the mobile operators would create a closed mobile Internet, which would prevent everyone other than those who had signed exclusive deals with them to have their commercial information available while the user was on the move.
However, common sense prevailed, with operators realising that easier access led to more traffic and therefore more call business. There is now an industry sprouting up comprising companies that make it easier for firms to configure their servers to allow cut-down versions of their Internet sites to be accessed by interested potential customers.
This conversion of Internet information to mobile Internet data sees HyperText Markup LANguage (HTML)-based information converted to Wireless Markup LANguage (WML) information, which can then be downloaded onto a small-phone screen quickly. Companies that don't have their own internal servers to support such a move should approach the Internet service provider (ISP) that hosts the server supporting the website, to make sure the server supports WAP.
Although everyone is talking about WAP, some business customers may find their ISP has not been totally convinced about the arguments, or perhaps has taken the conservative view that no one really wants WAP services yet. Last month, when Computer Weekly spoke to Globalnet and Demon - both ISPs that rely on business hosting - neither had yet implemented WAP strategies.
ISPs in the US, however, have been quicker to make alliances with telecoms firms and handset manufacturers that will be sending the data. AOL has teamed up with Sprint, Nokia, RIM (which offers two-way email paging devices) and Motorola to make sure it retains a chunk of the email traffic that will become a huge part of the WAP experience. AOL wants to make sure its customers can continue to use the familiar AOL email interfaces, instead of having to migrate to new ones to cope with different devices.
But all those involved with the development of WAP have been urged to move quickly to avoid user apathy and potential rejection. Yrjo Neuvo, Nokia senior vice-president of product creation, says, "The telecoms firms have to open up the content side as quickly as possible. It is the only way the mobile Internet will take off."
Neuvo says the limited content available on WAP phones is often mistakenly blamed on the handset manufacturers. He says the manufacturers are really the facilitators, and they have now been forced to take a more stand-off position to see how the operators want to take the market.
Companies like Nokia claim to have all the angles covered. They can provide both WAP servers and switches and routers that enable data traffic to pass through the telecoms firms' networks, as well as the handsets. But Nokia does not sell content in a big way yet.
Seeing the potential pitfalls of WAP, Ovum analyst Michele Mackenzie says, "Now that users are beginning to see what all the fuss over WAP is about, there is a significant danger of disappointment and a backlash against the technology."
"WAP was never meant to be the be-all and end-all of mobile Internet. As and when mobile network improvements allow, more sophisticated technologies will take centre stage. But before that happens, players will have to work extra hard to get user buy-in and overcome any backlash."
Mackenzie continues, "The collision of the mobile world with the Internet world was never going to be easy, and this has resulted in slow progress and disappointing early releases of the technology. WAP may even end up being squeezed as next-generation technologies based on Extensible Markup LANguage (XML) - expected to make a big splash in e-commerce - catch up in the next three years.
"Operators and content providers can't afford to wait for better technology - they can act now by moving beyond the hype and playing to the strengths of WAP. They must become wireless data champions, and encourage adoption by delivering compelling and innovative applications. Only by doing so can they hope to survive tomorrow's battles."
Despite operators apparently finding it difficult to convince users about the mobile Internet, Ovum still predicts there will be 1.5 billion mobile subscribers globally by 2006, with 684 million of these using microbrowser-enabled services, with WAP technology playing the major role. In comparison, there will be 500 million fixed Internet users, says Ovum.
Nokia constantly proffers its opinion that there will be more users accessing the Internet with mobile devices than through fixed PC access by 2003. Analyst IDC predicts the number of WAP phones being used in Europe will reach 50 million over the next four years - a rise of 1,600 per cent.
Higher speeds are essential if users are to get the most from WAP. In the short to medium term, GPRS is probably the best vehicle to deliver this - if the handset manufacturers can overcome certain technical difficulties.
GPRS represents a stopgap on the road to true 3G services. With the hype about 3G including the promise of video on a mobile handset, the suppliers seemed to pluck GPRS out of the air as a way to continue their marketing of the brave new world of mobile Internet.
The concept of GPRS is pretty simple, and GPRS offers an efficient delivery mechanism. Instead of dialling up every piece of information you need on your phone, you use GPRS, which works like the Internet. Once you turn on your phone and connect to services supported by GPRS, that one connection allows you to jump from one service to the next, rather like an Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line via a fixed-line PC.
And probably more importantly as far as operators are concerned, the frequency slots used by callers on the operators' networks are only filled when data is actually sent or requested, meaning more efficient use of bandwidth.
The only problem is that this permanent connection through multifrequency channels creates hot handsets and drains batteries.
When GPRS was launched last year as a potential solution to delivering real mobile Internet, the speeds promised were 115 kilobits per second (kbps). As the market was already gearing itself up for speeds of 2 megabits per second (mbps) through 3G - or Universal Mobile Telephone System (UMTS) - this specification seemed rather modest.
But as a result of field tests which showed up the technical problems the handset manufacturers and network operators are starting to tone down their promises.
At this year's CeBIT show, Motorola launched the world's first commercial GPRS phone, but it only offers GPRS through a single-frequency slot, so it will only be slightly faster than a traditional GSM phone already delivering services like short message service (SMS) and WAP.
Soon after CeBIT, Orange announced its pLANs to launch a UK GPRS network in partnership with Ericsson. When pressed about the speed of this service, Orange admitted that the handsets supplied by Ericsson and its network infrastructure would initially only deliver transmission speeds of less than 30kbps. Users of this service, which is due to appear by the end of the year, may be forgiven for thinking that even these speeds may be optimistic, considering the false promises that have so far been tabled by the mobile industry.
Orange has insisted it does not see WAP as a viable solution in its own right, and that its own High-Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD) technology is the best way to access the Internet, using laptop computers over its existing GSM network. After enjoying favourable publicity from its announcement of a technology that delivers at least 30kbps, Orange promptly failed to launch the service commercially.
While one hopes that Orange will deliver GPRS on time, BT Cellnet claims to be the first with a commercial GPRS service for business. In May, BT Cellnet promised that businesses would be able to touch and feel GPRS from the end of June.
What was unusual about this announcement - for the mobile industry as a whole - was that here was BT Cellnet actually giving the business market precedence in a new service. Until now, the whole idea of mobile Internet was to give consumers what they wanted in terms of content - like music news, shopping and sport.
Designed to allow users to link up to their corporate network via a laptop computer and mobile phone, the GPRS offering from BT Cellnet was something which could potentially be useful for business.
Again, BT Cellnet was promising far lower speeds than GPRS could actually supply, but it was bullish about going commercial in providing email, live news and stock market information, as well as travel and leisure information.
The consumer versions of this service, like the Orange solution, are set to appear by the end of the year. BT Cellnet's core network is being built by Motorola, using kit provided by Cisco. Working with WAP and supporting HTML and Microsoft Office applications, the laptop/phone GPRS solution is designed to give mobile access to corporate intranets.
BT Cellnet sales and marketing director Peter Richardson says there has been intense interest in GPRS in the business market. To entice firms into the solution, BT Cellnet offered a single promotional tariff before a new range of prices - ie increases - are brought in later this summer.
The billing model BT Cellnet decides on will be interesting, as there are a number of options. Should the customer of an "always on" technology, which only fills bandwidth when used, be charged a one-off monthly charge, be charged for each service subscribed to, or pay for every packet of data actually sent or received? (GPRS is like the Internet and sends data in Internet Protocol packets, rather than traditional GSM circuit switched data.)
Another factor firms should consider about WAP, GPRS and UMTS is that every small leap towards more efficient transporting of data usually involves the purchase of a new batch of phones.
Bluetooth, a short-range wireless technology that allows devices to communicate, has had more than its fair share of publicity since its launch in 1998. Some 1,500 companies are looking to build products using Bluetooth and all are members of the Bluetooth special interest group.
However, the only commercial product to have appeared is an Ericsson headset that allows wireless communications between a mobile phone and one or more headsets.
The main reason for this lack of products, according to these companies, is Bluetooth's popularity in the industry. The story goes that the initial interest group members, including Ericsson and Nokia, were surprised by the number of other companies taking an interest. Consequently, hundreds of potential products have caused an interoperability backlog, leading to a delay in commercial launches. The companies involved in testing regularly hold "plug fests", which involve them testing each others' products together.
The popularity of Bluetooth is partly due to the fact that it works in the unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum band, which means users do not have to pay access charges to run their devices. A drawback, however, is that many other technologies use this unlicensed bandwidth space, and there have been reports that Bluetooth may interfere with these other services. Bluetooth's performance could be curtailed in busy usage areas such as airports, trade shows and campus sites. Because Bluetooth has so far not been widely used, users cannot see whether reassurances from suppliers about this possible problem hold true.
But it can be expected that remote workers will want to take advantage of two opportunities Bluetooth offers: wireless communications between a laptop or personal digital assistant (PDA) and mobile phone, and shared wireless links to the Internet via a variety of different mobile devices.
In the first instance, a user could write email on a laptop or PDA when in a place which offers no transmission opportunities - for example, on a pLANe - and when the opportunity does arise, like LANding, the data can be quickly sent via a mobile phone without any cables connecting the two. Both Nokia and Ericsson have promised Bluetooth PC cards to enable this to happen by the end of the year.
One could say this opportunity already exists via infra-red, but infra-red relies on line-of-site between the two devices, and does not have the same 10-metre range as Bluetooth. More importantly, Bluetooth offers connections for multiple users sharing the same Bluetooth system.
The range of Bluetooth can also be extended up to 100 metres with boosters, and this, along with its other attributes, has led to companies like Madge Networks and AxisCommunications launching Bluetooth radio base station systems,which allow users at an airport to use theirmobile devices to gain quick and easy access to the Internet.
A Bluetooth-enabled mobile device would not need a booster, but to access these radio base stations initially, the provider would supply a user with a Bluetooth toggle to fit on their device. Both Axis and Madge have promised commercial base station products this year.
What we are also still waiting for are the phones to communicate with Bluetooth PC Cards and base stations without having to use fit-on toggles. The first phones tobeBluetooth-enabledare promisedby Ericsson - one model this year, and another probably early next year.
Wireless local area networks
Of all the emerging mobile technologies, the wireless LAN is the most established. Used in hospitals, on many campuses and increasingly by IT suppliers in their corporate premises, the wireless LAN is now looking for the commercial big time, partly through new standards which allow users to send and receive data at up to 11mbps.
The arrival of a series of standards from the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers last year has helped to develop a massive wireless LAN industry, but there have been drawbacks. A well-publicised test inaugurated by Tolly Research last year showed how easily wireless LAN communications can be seriously curtailed in heavily-shared office environments. Contributory factors include the amount of traffic being transported through the fixed lines of PCs that wireless connections from other PCs are trying to communicate with. Simple obstacles such as a thin dividing wall can also seriously hamper speed.
There have also been arguments between suppliers over which type of 11mbps protocol to use. This has caused uncertainty in the market, even though use of wireless LANs is rapidly growing in the public sector, in the conferences market and in companies that employ temporary staff who regularly switch offices.
Wireless LAN supplier Elsa, which provides kit built using the recently passed 11mbps protocol 802.11, is clear about the aim of wireless LANs. Elsa UK general manager Fiona Faulkner says, "Wireless LANs are not intended to replace conventional LANs, but they give the user additional flexibility.
"You can add new workstations or laptops to the network in minutes without knocking holes in walls, and you can stay in touch with the server or even access the Internet when working on your notebook in a conference room or on the shop floor - you don't need to be tied to an Ethernet point or a phone socket."
Elsa sells PC cards at prices ranging from £150 to £200, and the base station points they communicate with to get network access cost £525.
Future personal digital assistants
The future direction of mobile data devices is now dependent on mobile voice telephony. Users are crying out for devices that can provide a voice channel as well as a means of allowing them to effectively run an office while on the move. The popularity of 3Com's Palm Pilot has demonstrated the need for devices that do simple but essential things on the move - but users want to carry one device to do the lot.
The launch of Microsoft's Pocket PC this year was a major step in this direction. Microsoft is working on cut-down versions of its Office suite, to allow users to write notes, view and send email, and add to spreadsheets with the same graphical user interface they use in the office. At the same time it synchronises data travelling between their mobile and office locations - and uses the same type of browser technology too.
At the same time, Microsoft says it is also aiming to combine all these features with a phone facility on the same device. But it is not the only supplier aiming to do this, and there is a chance it may be beaten to it, for a change.
Symbian, an alliance consisting of Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Psion and Panasonic, has launched the Quartz initiative which aims to do exactly what Microsoft pLANs, and it would be fair to say it has many advantages over Microsoft when it comes to mobile voice, including an impressive array of backers.
Quartz, in the spirit of the Symbian initiative, seeks to use the Epoc operating system. This was originally developed by Psion and was the arch rival to Microsoft's Windows CE mobile operating system.
Motorola is slated to be the first of the Symbian partners to launch a Quartz product. The Quartz specification offers a half-sized full-colour VGA Palm Pilot-style screen and supports HTML, unlike WAP. In addition, Quartz delivers WAP support over GPRS, Bluetooth connectivity, and a simple pen device for compiling data.
When asked whether Motorola's first offering would have all this, Symbian confirmed that it would, but Symbian was cagey as to when exactly it would be made commercially available. The first showing is expected some time this year, but Microsoft isn't even in a position to hint when the Pocket PC will be equipped with voice.
These types of device are in the pipeline, and it is understandable why some users just want solutions that get the most out of their humble laptops.
The SpeedStep processor from Intel is one solution that has already hit the shops, but it is expensive. Laptop users want extra life from their batteries and more processing power to get the most out of their applications.
That's why Intel introduced SpeedStep. But such a solution - which gets 25 per cent extra battery life from a machine - can add around £1,000 to the price of an average laptop. While Intel got there first, users can wait a little longer for solutions from Transmeta, which promises chips that are much cheaper and offer a lot longer battery life. The first Transmeta offerings are expected this year.
Like everything in the mobile world, users should see how the first products perform before getting their wallets out.