Walk into any bank or building society and you are likely to see advertisements for Wap (Wireless Application Protocol) phones. Telephone companies, such as BT Cellnet and Orange, are promoting their new Internet-based phone services, and the convergence of mobile telephony and the Internet is well under way.
Mobile phones have been capable of Internet access for two to three years now, but until recently access has been very much a minority offering. It has taken time for a head of steam to build up and the driver was the publication of the first practical Wap specification in the middle of last year.
Wap can be seen as a protocol similar to the Internet's Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), but specifically designed to be as slim as possible to minimise memory requirements. To use it you need a Wap gateway, or portal, through which you can access Internet services using a Wap-enabled phone. Take-up is steadily increasing, and according to Roger Goscombe, project director at IT services company CMG, there are now over 100 networks worldwide.
This year has seen a steady stream of announcements of both products and services. Three of the four UK mobile phone service providers - BT Cellnet, Orange and Vodafone - have launched Wap portals allowing other content providers to offer data to Wap users. The number of Wap phone owners in the UK alone is already approaching a quarter of a million.
In July, Orange went a step further, publishing its view of the future under the brand name OrangeWorld. This not only encompasses provision of familiar Internet-type services, including banking as well as information access, but sketches a futuristic vision where phones will be the size of an ear stud and users will able to access services by spoken commands.
Significantly, Orange has not attached any timescales to its view of the future. It is still very early days, and there are some major obstacles to overcome and problems to be solved.
Manyoftoday'sÊWap phone owners are becoming disenchanted.Mobile phones operate at speeds that are too low for significant amounts of data access, while connect-time charges mount up if a connection is maintained for any length of time. Displays are limited in size (typically to four lines) and capability (they are usually monochrome). Battery life is a major issue, and becomes a bigger problem as processor speed and memory size is increased.
The most important issue of all, according to Robin Bloor, CEO of analyst company Bloor Research, is the question of the availability of bandwidth - or lack of it.
Work is under way to tackle this problem. First, mobile phones today use GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) bearer networks, which are limited in speed to a maximum 14.4 kilobits per second(kbps).Anew infrastructurestandard called High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD) will double this speed to start with, and has the potential to reach nearly 60 kbps ultimately. Orange recently rolled out a limited HSCSD service to businesses.
HSCSD is a short-term fix but General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), announced last year, will make a bigger, more lasting difference. It is potentially a lot faster, offering speeds of up to 115 kbps initially, but of even greater significance is the fact that GPRS is a packet-switched service, as opposed to the circuit-switched GSM and HSCSD.
Packet switching allows a connection to be open all the time - essential for instant e-mail - without cost when data is not being transferred. Furthermore, the need to redial when a connection goes down disappears.
GPRS uses essentially the same hardware technology as GSM, so the time from specification to delivery should be short. Services and phones will start to become available by the end of this year, and should become widespread in 2001. In Japan, national carrier NTT already offers a packet-switched Wap-type service called iMode.
The next step forward is known as third generation (3G) or Universal Mobile Telephone System (UMTS). The UK licences for developing 3G networks were sold off with much publicity or billions of pounds in April this year. 3G will offer speeds of 300 kbps to 2 mbps, which will make possible services such as video on mobiles for the first time.
Technologically, 3G will be very different from GSM and GPRS, so the network operators will have to build completely new technical infrastructures, and that will delay the speed at which they arrive. Orange reckons its service will be ready by 2002, but most observers are being more conservative and estimating dates between 2003 and 2005.
The steady rollout of these new network technologies will gradually improve speed - and therefore usefulness - and cost of use, but will not overcome all the present shortcomings. According to analyst John Davison of Ovum, "The limitations in terminals and in networks won't go away". Most notably, phones need to remain small, otherwise they defeat their object - you might as well use a personal digital assistant (PDA) or a laptop.
This means compromises in design. As Nokia vice-president Bob Brace says, "If you start adding colour data pages, you need more memory, because each pixel has a depth of four to eight bits. You need a faster processor, and a bigger battery, so there is a trade-off."
Brace foresees a wide variety of different types of Internet-enabled mobile phones - school children, for example, will have different ones from travelling executives. This process is already starting to happen: Nokia today sells four different Internet phones. The 9110i Communicator is a halfway house between a phone and a PDA, the 7110 has encryption capability, the 6210 is a business phone for occasional Wap use, and there is a more rugged version of this for hostile working environments.
Doubtless some of the applications for the developing breed of Internet mobiles will take us all by surprise, as the Internet itself has. The essential limitation of the size of a phone makes it unsuitable for many of the Web-based applications with which we have become familiar, just as its ability to go anywhere makes it a powerful adjunct to our desktops.
There is no doubt that Internet phones will take off rapidly. One estimate by Ovum analysts predicts a user base of nearly 700 million phones with browsers by 2006 - but what we will all be doing with them remains to be seen.