WAP is an open, global specification that empowers mobile users with wireless devices and phones to interact with information and services instantly.
Handset manufacturers representing over 75 per cent of the global market across all technologies have committed to shipping Wap-enabled devices.
This commitment will provide tens of millions of Wap browser-enabled products to consumers by the end of 2000. The Wap forum has published a global wireless protocol specification based on existing standards, such as XML and Internet Protocol, for all wireless networks. Membership of the WAP Forum is open to all participants in the industry.
Wap browsers essentially use a mark-up language, WML which is similar to HTML, but needs a gateway to convert pages that have been formatted in HTML. There have been moves lately, such as Microsoft's decision to join the WAP Forum and develop a Wap browser that means it is likely to emerge as the industry standard.
Tony Dennis is a communications consultant and editor of Wap Insight, a web site that provides in-depth marketing and technical information concerning Wap. 'IT managers will need to know, for example, where to find a suitable Wap browser; where to source Wap enabled handsets; and what Wap server software is available?, he says. 'So our site carries a wide range of original sources, such as press materials, so you can tell from the dates on the releases whether or not certain products are overdue? But providing such free information is not merely philanthropic. Dennis believes that the drive to Wap is unstoppable.
'WAP Insight is meant as a focal point where those interested in developing Wap can discover or make available the kind of technical data that will allow Wap sites with commercial content to be built.
'We're planning to add links to resellers who stock Wap-enabled phones; to book stores which stock XML handbooks; and to design houses with expertise in creating Wap sites. But when there's still only one Wap 1.1 enabled handset - the Nokia 7110e - on general sale in the UK, you simply can't expect anyone to produce thousands of web pages with meaningful content. Ask me the same thing again in another six months, and the whole scene will have changed radically?
Excitement surrounding the Nokia 7110e has been intense. Chatrooms have been buzzing with the latest news on its release and availability. Orange recently introduced itself as an online internet service provider (ISP). It provides a set level of Wap-enabled services that the user can access on the 7110e. These range from the latest in British and world news supplied by ITN, to sport news from the Press Association and the Sporting Life. Theatre, concert and cinema details are supplied by Scene One - an online entertainment listings company.
The user can also find out the latest in travel information from integrated traffic information services (Itis), a Coventry-based company that provides the same service to the Police. A business directory only gives access to Thomson Directories database of local services.
'We chose Wap because it's here and now,' says a spokesperson for Orange. 'It's the only format available that will connect with GSM technology. In Europe, there are 200 million fixed-line internet users, but over 300 million people have mobile phones. The possibilities are endless?
Nokia may have stolen a march on its competitors, but all the major phone manufacturers have announced Wap phones for this coming year. The Ericsson WebOnAir filters HTML, which is currently being tested at Mannesmann is one example, as is NTT's DoCoMo I-mode.
While Orange's services seem little more than glorified messaging at the moment, how long will it be before other offerings tempt IT managers to adopt WAPap phones for their wide area networks (Wans)? From next year, Orange will offer financial services that will allow their customers to see balance updates, transfer funds across accounts, and make bill payments directly on the screen of the phone.
Banking online could be the killer application that will make Wap-enabled phones indispensable to the general user, but what of its other benefits? The potential is endless. For a start, roving workers could have access to stock information, e-mails and company intranets as they dial-in.
The real success of Wap will depend on the speed of information delivery. High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) will take over from GSM, and offer enhanced speed for mobile data. HSCSD will be available early this year, while GPRS isn't likely to arrive until the start of 2001.
HSCSD is, as the name suggests, based on a dedicated circuit model. In essence this means that the user has a dedicated circuit, or circuits, assigned to the data call being made. This ensures that the user has a predictable data rate to support whatever application he or she is using.
This feature makes the technology ideal for supporting applications like high speed mobile internet access. HSCSD provides data speeds of up to 28.8kbps and, using compression technology, up to 64kbps.
Much has been made of the deployment of GPRS as early as mid 2000. This is extremely unlikely, given the fact that GPRS terminals will not be available until the very end of 2000, and even then only offering speeds of 14.4kbps initially, with 57.6kbps possible by late 2001, comparable to HSCSD now. Compare that with the Nokia 7110e's present rate of 9.6kbps.
The deployment of GPRS will see GSM take its first step away from a pure circuit-switched architecture into the world of packet technology. The use of a packet-based model brings mobile technology much closer by using the widely adopted Internet Protocol.
This closeness means that GPRS will be a useful service for carrying internet data, and in particular email traffic. Looking into the more distant future, the combination of GPRS's affinity with internet technology, and the location signal broadcast by mobile phones, could enable a user's handset to display the nearest cash point, restaurant or cinema showing a particular film. This is an area where IBM is particularly strong. Its Pervasive Computing Division has been working together with a number of companies to generate increased momentum in the wireless market. These companies include Swissair, Heineken, and two leading European banks.
Agreeing with Nokia to use its Wap software in its Pervasive Computing solutions has enabled IBM to help its customers quickly deploy networked applications. Big Blue even has a Wap Swat team that can help European customers get started with Wap based applications in a matter of days. 'Who Gets It and who Has Got it? - that's what I'm concerned with when it comes to mobile communications?, says Val Rahmani, vice president of IBM's Europe, Middle East, and Africa Communications Sector.
Mobile internet access is nothing to do with surfing but rather pinpoint access to critical data while 'on the go'. Mobile e-business will be the major revenue and profit driver for the future for wireless carriers with a focus on transactions through any device. Through innovative products and alliances with major companies, IBM is already helping organisations take an early lead in this exciting area of the business. Adapt or die, that's the implication for organisations. l
Case study: MEXX and match
MEXX, one of the leading fashion brands in Europe, provides employees and business partners with wireless access to information stored on a central AS/400. Members of the company's mobile salesforce can access this information using Wap phones.
Seagull is an e-business solutions provider and member of the WAP Forum. The company provides MEXX with the relevant software technology, and expects the relationship between the two companies to expand.
'Seagull's wireless-to-host solution is the only technology in the market today that is up to this type of challenge. The company was the logical partner to help us make this breakthrough step,' says Henry Holster, business systems manager sales and marketing at MEXX.
MEXX markets a wide range of fashion products for men, women and children. The fashion company was founded in 1980 and employs 1,500 people worldwide.
'We are proud that MEXX has chosen to rely on our software and services. MEXX is the type of innovative company that understands the potential of this technology', says Frans Wauters, director of marketing EMEA & Asia Pacific at Seagull.