Wap could get a shot in the arm from iMode

All is not well for the Wireless Access Protocol (Wap). The standard has been ill-received by a population turned off by pokey...

All is not well for the Wireless Access Protocol (Wap). The standard has been ill-received by a population turned off by pokey monochrome screens and slow, expensive access. But the wireless Internet could be given a welcome shot in the arm if iMode, the alternative technology from Japanese company NTT DoCoMo, takes off, writes Danny Bradbury.

NTT DoCoMo has made a success of iMode in Japan and is hoping to launch it into the US and Europe over the next year. The company bought 16% of US-based AT&T Wireless in December, after making a £1.2bn investment in Hutchison 3G UK Holdings and a 15% investment in European cellular operator KPN Mobile earlier in the year.

In mid-January, NTT DoCoMo, KPN Mobile and Italian mobile operator TIM announced that they would introduce an iMode-based Internet portal in Europe. The service would include interactive games, e-mail messages and mobile e-commerce, including location-based services.

NTT DoCoMo clearly has its eye on the European market for wireless Internet services, and with good reason. IMode reached 17 million customers in Japan within two years - and that's a lot of revenue.

True, Japan has a reputation for loving gadgets, but the attraction of iMode must go deeper than that. The colour screens it offers, compared to the monochrome, text-based, first-generation Wap screens, will help make it more attractive to consumers.

Another big plus for iMode is that it will run over the packet-switched GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) network, unlike Wap, which has run mainly over data-hostile, circuit-switched GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), which is expensive and charged by time, rather than content.

And customers won't have to choose between the two technologies, because the KPN Mobile/NTT DoCoMo partnership will yield combined Wap/iMode handsets, possibly appearing as early as the end of this year.

"Wap has had a bit of a false start here. This may be a way for people to try the service again," said Katrina Bond, an analyst at cellular-market tracking company Analysys.

But why choose Wap at all? If iMode is as good as it's supposed to be, won't Wap fall by the wayside?

Bond believes that Wap will survive because it is evolving. It is being enhanced, moving away from its Wireless Markup Language (WML) roots to take advantage of XHTML, the XML-based version of the popular HTML language from which most of the Web is built.

In spite of what technology suppliers might tell you, most markets are not determined solely by customer demand, but by suppliers' earnings projections. Companies need new technologies to sell if they are to keep their financial results - and therefore their stock prices - rolling. Such is the case with wireless Internet access, which is why early versions have been so inadequate and why customer take-up has been so slow.

The introduction of packet-based access, based on transport mechanisms using HTML variants, will finally give the wireless Web the kickstart that it needs. Don't expect to see sales explode as soon as these networks hit the market, but do expect a steady increase in customer take-up as the level of functionality increases.

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