What does the future hold for WAP?

By adding basic web surfing capabilities to an otherwise conventional cellular phone, the Wireless Application Protocol brings...

By adding basic web surfing capabilities to an otherwise conventional cellular phone, the Wireless Application Protocol brings mobile phones and Internet access appliances closer to merging

WAP is a protocol for web-like communication across the Internet to mobile devices. It is intended to bridge the gap between small mobile devices and the Internet as well as private intranets. It offers the ability to deliver the same range of mobile information and interactive services to subscribers as can currently be delivered over the Internet to conventional web browsers from existing web servers.

Services and applications include email, customer care, call management, unified messaging, weather and traffic alerts, news, sports and information services, e-commerce transactions and banking services, online address book and directory services, as well as corporate intranet applications.

WAP is a global ratified standard. Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Unwired Planet founded the WAP Forum in the summer of 1997 with the initial purpose of defining an industry-wide specification for developing applications over wireless communications networks. The WAP specifications define a set of protocols in application, session, transaction, security and transport layers which enable operators, manufacturers and applications providers to develop services, content and reception hardware that support a common standard. There are now over 100 members representing technology manufacturers, operators, carriers, service providers, software houses, content providers and companies developing services and applications for mobile devices.

Why bother with WAP?

In the past, wireless Internet access has been limited by the capabilities of handheld devices and wireless networks.

WAP brings existing Internet standards such as XML, user datagram protocol (UDP) and IP to existing mobile phone and handheld PC architecture without the need for drastic redesigning. Many of the protocols are based on Internet standards such as hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and TLS (Transport Layer Security) but have been optimised for the unique constraints of the wireless environment: low bandwidth, high latency and less connection stability.

Internet standards such as hypertext mark-up language (HTML), HTTP, TLS and transmission control protocol (TCP) are inefficient over mobile networks, requiring large amounts of mainly text-based data to be sent. Standard HTML content cannot be effectively displayed on the small-size screens of pocket-sized mobile phones and pagers.

WAP uses binary transmission for greater compression of data and is optimised for long latency and low bandwidth. WAP sessions cope with intermittent coverage (a common problem with mobile phones) and can operate over a wide variety of wireless transports.

WML and wireless mark-up language script (WMLScript) are used to produce WAP content. They make optimum use of small displays, and navigation may be performed with one hand. WAP content is scaleable from a two-line text display on a basic device to a full graphic screen on the latest smart phones and communicators.

WAP is also designed to work on several different frequencies of phone network: GSM 900 (used by Cellnet and Vodafone in the UK and overseas), 1800 (used by Orange and One2One in the UK and also overseas), and 1900 MHz (used in the US and Canada). Other US and overseas specific cellular standards are also supported.

The use of WAP is not restricted to just cellphones either. WAP information and applications can be used over digital cordless landline or DECT phones, which are quickly replacing radio-based cordless phones in the home by offering improved audio quality and increased distance from the base station.

Given the already large user base of mobile phones, WML's user interface components have been designed to map onto existing mobile phone user interfaces (text-based in line with existing broadcast services such as Short Message System (SMS)). This means end users can immediately switch to using WAP-enabled mobile phones and services without having to learn the mechanics of a different device. It also ensures that many other existing handsets can be upgraded to support WAP.

WAP specifications enable products which employ standard Internet technology to optimise content and airlink protocols to better suit the characteristics and limitations of existing and future wireless networks and devices.

What can I get with WAP?

Despite only recently breaking into the UK mobile phone market, WAP phones already have access to a vast amount of UK-specific data. Most of the services available are news and travel information based. Basically, those services that previously relied on SMS messages to transmit messages to handsets.

Unlike SMS, WAP is not limited to 160 characters per message, making is more suitable for often longer material such as news, traffic and travel reports, email, billing information and so forth. It is also highly suitable for electronic books and newspapers, share data and promotional information, such as recipes and supermarket offers; basically, anything you can access with a web browser can potentially be accessed via a WAP browser.

Security is also very tight. WAP has its own security and encryption protocols, making it secure enough for online shopping and betting applications (both Camelot and Virgin are highlighting WAP phones as an alternative way to play the National Lottery because it is a secure enough medium with a reliable authentication routine).

There are limitations in how some elements of a WAP page can be presented though. For example, graphics support is limited to the WBMP format. These ideally need to be black and white images to accommodate the mono screens of mobile phones and PDAs. There is also the consideration of the screen size on the client device. Not everyone will be lucky enough to be using a Psion 5-like device of a phone with a full-length display underneath its keypad. Indeed, people who are updating the operating system on their existing phones will be using a three to four line display that may be as narrow as 12 characters.

WAP hardware

WAP is not exclusive to mobile phones, though phones are the area where it is being implemented the most. Essentially, WAP is intended for all small computer and non-computer devices. So, in theory, it can also be applied to palm-size and handheld computers, pagers, watches, car dashboard displays - basically anything with a screen interface that would need to work with a wireless data connection to remain portable.

Based on the Internet model, the wireless device contains a microbrowser, while content and applications are hosted on web servers. At the moment, the available WAP hardware in the UK is limited - currently standing at just three devices, although over a dozen are scheduled for release in the next six months.

How Wap support has been applied to phones and PDAs

The Ericsson MC218 (218) is a Psion 5MX. It looks the same, has all the same system software and applications as a 5MX, and it even rolls off the same production line. There are just two subtle differences: the Ericsson badge and colour scheme, and the built-in WAP browser and infra-red modem.

The 218 is one of two devices Ericsson currently has on sale that run Psion's EPOC operating system, a very stable multitasking OS that uses a StrongARM MX processor. The EPOC operating system was originally created for pocket-sized computers, but has since been developed to serve the needs of wireless information devices produced by members of the Symbian consortium (Psion, Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola). It is easier to operate, smaller, less power consuming and faster than other similar operating systems. EPOC is a highly optimised operating system platform. It is entirely modular and supports embedded graphics and voice recording, along with pen and keyboard input.

The 218 is a prime example of how WAP can be used on a larger portable device. The half-VGA size screen of the 218 makes for a more comfortable web-like offering and as the 218 has both a full (and very nice) keyboard and a touch screen, links can be accessed in a single click, while addresses can be typed in to a permanent address bar in the browser window. Support for external landline modems as well as GSM offerings mean that if needed, the 218 has the advantage of being able to surf WAP pages at up to 56K, rather than just 9,600bps.

The built-in GSM modem is optimised for use with Ericsson phones (many need an IR dongle that plugs onto the base of the phone), though it will work with other IrDA compatible phones. The port can be used by any phone with a built in modem, such as the Motorola Timeport or Siemens S25.

Another application for the 218 is actually authoring WAP pages, as the machine is both capable of being used to write and mark-up text (using its built-in word processor) then actually viewing them on a target machine before uploading them (something you can't do with a WAP-enabled phone, yet). At the moment, the number of available WAP browsers for desktop computers on any platform are few and far between.

Ericsson R380

This is Ericsson's attempt at a WAP phone. While Nokia has augmented its proprietary handset operating system to accommodate WAP support, Ericsson has opted for a cut-down version of EPOC.

Unlike the Nokia, the R380 is not limited by its screen size. When used as a conventional mobile phone, it looks much like any other Ericsson phone, with a small three-line display. For WAP and PDA use, the keypad folds down to reveal a larger landscape oriented screen underneath on which you can not only view WAP pages (using a cut-down version of the browser included in the 218), but also basic calendar and organiser functions.

The screen is touch-sensitive, much like the 218, but is much smaller, 360 x 120 pixel screen, or roughly eight lines deep. However, it is still significantly larger than the 7110 screen, and of a higher resolution. The R380 also supports scaleable fonts.

Text input is performed not with the numeric keypad, but using an on-screen keyboard - similar to those used by PalmPilot and Windows CE devices. The touch screen and a stylus allow for character input - faster than using the numeric keypad but still not as quick or easy as the 218's keyboard.

Both devices offer the same basic set of browser functions - bookmarks, forward and back, default home pages and forms support.

The future for WAP

A current area of interest within WAP Forum is evolution to support multimedia mobile services. WAP v1.1 and v1.2 are open protocols that allow the transport of many forms of multimedia content. However, some multimedia services, especially those based on streaming media, require further enhancements to WAP.

As you read this, the Government is completing the auction process for the next generation of mobile phone frequency licences. The role of WAP is set to increase in the new environment that will be created by the formation of a new mobile phone network - one with more available bandwidth and high data transfer rate support. WAP is already compatible with the planned new mobile networks, but expect to see the capabilities of WAP expanded to support colour graphics, live and recorded streaming video and sound - in particular television services transmitted direct to mobile handsets.

Example WAP sites

BBC - www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/mainmenu.wml

News Unlimited - www.newsunlimited.co.uk/wml

PR Newswire - wap.prnewswire.co.uk

DHL online parcel tracking - wap.dhl.com

Mail and News.com (Hotmail like service for WAP phones) - wap.mailandnews.com

Manchester United FC - www.wapmanutd.com/menu.wml

Wap Online.com (WAP portal site) - waponline.com/index.wml

BT Cellnet Genie - wap.genie.co.uk

Craig Hinton

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