WAP: opening new channels

WAP: opening new channels Wireless Application Protocol will power mobile e-business. Paul Mason outlines the issues for early...

WAP: opening new channels Wireless Application Protocol will power mobile e-business. Paul Mason outlines the issues for early adopters

What is Wap? Wireless Application Protocol is an international standard for transferring Internet content to mobile phones and palmtop computers. It will allow the recently-launched Wap mobile phones to browse the Internet.

Why is it important? One in four adults in the UK owns a mobile phone. If Web-style content and services can be beamed direct to their handsets, a whole new market for mobile e-commerce will take off. ARC Group predicts that the number of mobile e-commerce users will overtake the number buying from their desktop PC by early 2003. By 2005 there could be one billion mobile phone users worldwide.

What does it mean for e-business?

More customers, different behaviour. Today, e-commerce relationships are shaped by the way PCs access the Web. Mobile phones are not static and private - they allow anytime, anywhere access. Mobile Internet access is typically done over equipment and bandwidth paid for by the end-user. Unlike a PC a mobile phone is always on or can be quickly switched on. Web buying behaviour today mirrors mail-order purchasing. Mobile e-commerce will not just mirror High Street behaviour - it will dovetail with it.

What services could I provide using Wap today?

The first six months of 2000 will see the UK's four mobile networks team up with handset manufacturers to roll out basic Wap phones and services. Pilot schemes include: online bank account management; mail-order CD purchase; frequent flier flight booking and realtime financial market news. But although the phones are available in the High Street, fully-fledged services and content are thin on the ground

What is the main business issue?

The changed relationship between content provider, network carrier and hardware manufacturer. The Internet was constructed on stable technology - the PC, the modem and the landline telecoms network. The mobile Internet is being constructed on new technology - Wap-enabled GSM networks dominated by telecoms giants. The mobile network carriers are shaping the content - ie the business opportunities - far more heavily than the early Internet service providers. So, the mobile Internet will start off as a highly monopolised sector of the online economy. If you want to provide e-business content - such as a retail or entertainment services, you could be forced into partnership with a proprietory domain dominated by a handset or network company.

What is the main technical issue?

Slow connection speeds. Today's GSM phones transfer data at 9.6kbps, whereas a PC modem speed has a maximum of 56kbps, and two-line ISDN allows 128kbps.

Will it get faster?

Yes. Today's GSM phones will soon be replaced by phones using GPRS technology at 115kbps. This is better than ISDN but well below the ADSL landlines being rolled out in parts of the UK by BT this month. So for the forseeable future Wap content will have to be significantly less flashy than wireline services. That means the simplest transactions - booking systems, online payment, mail order and gambling - will be the easiest to deliver. Anything reliant on visual content will be much harder. The wait for GPRS phones may actually retard the uptake of Wap-enabled GSM phones and devices.

What are the staffing issues?

Wap has created an instant skills shortage. Wap engineering skills belong to the telecoms domain. Firms who want to provide services, sell products or organise their workforce over the mobile Internet will need specific content authoring skills. Wap content is written in Wireless Markup Language (WML), a special subset of the Internet language SGML. Needless to say, WML Web authors are in short supply.

Can I reuse existing Web content over Wap?

Not yet. It needs reformatting. You do not need to have two separate URLs as it is possible to determine whether the user has hit the site using a mobile phone or a PC, and direct the query to the relevant version of the content. Another content issue is Java. JavaScripts are used to make HTML pages interactive. A similar scripting language exists called WMLScript, but these scripts sit outside to the main Web page and have to be accessed separately.

What is being done to help me "re-purpose" content for Wap?

The World Wide Web Consortium, the guardian of Internet standards, is working on a future markup language called eXtensible Style Language, that would allow a one-off generation of content via XML, which is then filtered towards WML, HTML and hard-copy output.

Is Wap secure?

The software is as secure as the rest of the Internet. But, all security relies to some extent on hardware security and customer behaviour. Mobile phones are a well known target for criminals and the prospect of one-touch access to personal bank account, credit card payment or stock trading will present an inviting target. Firms providing mobile e-commerce will have to do more than the current fixed wire e-services have done to assure trust in the market.

Who will be the early adopters of mobile e-business?

Banks and credit card companies, firms whose transactions involve booking and ticketing, mail order firms whose products can be sold over text-heavy channels or linked to the voice capabilities of the phone.

It uses the Internet standard Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol.

Who owns WAP?

Wap is a de-facto international standard - it is not yet policed by a statutory standards body. HTML, along with the Internet in general, is policed by the World Wide Web Consortium. Wap on the other hand is developed and standardised by an industry body with 200 global affiliates, the Wap forum. Wap version 1.1 is the current standard Version 1.2 is currently under discussion.

Data Speeds - Wire versus wireless download speeds

TECHNOLOGY Harware Speed (Kilobits per second)
GSM (UK mobile phone) 9.6
GPRS (Future UK mobile phone) 115
PSTN (Modem and BT landline) 56
ISDN (two ISDN landlines) 128
ADSL (Landline available via BT March 2000) 512-2000

What does WAP look like

You can download various WAP emulators, specs and demos from:

Nokia

Ericsson

Symbian

Wapforum

Mobileways

Some of these sites also include WML authoring guides

This was last published in February 2000

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