Will Wap be overtaken before it takes off?

Despite the criticisms, Antony Savvas says don't write off Wap yet.

Despite the criticisms, Antony Savvas says don't write off Wap yet.

It's just one year since the first Wap service was launched in the UK. Now there is an acceptance that, despite its shortcomings, Wap will be at the centre of future mobile commerce growth in Europe.

Some people believe that Wap is about to be replaced by the i-Mode mobile browser/server solution that has conquered the mass market in Japan. But Wap will be the first transport mechanism offered in Europe for the faster General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) networks.

These networks will be three to six times faster than the current GSM ones, and will be introduced in the UK from the end of this year.

While i-Mode has proved to be faster than Wap, mainly thanks to better design, Wap is to be given another chance on the new networks and there is no reason to believe that it will disappear when the next generation and even faster third generation networks appear from 2002.

All the main mobile operators in the UK are still pushing Wap as a solution, partly because they have no other tested European alternative, but also because they know Wap can deliver the solutions needed by users in the short- to medium-term.

Messaging and access to databases and presentations while on the move are the most useful Wap applications for business. But the latter option is still waiting for the high-speed connections possible through GPRS networks.

And e-mail on the move has only just got going. Although Wap integration companies like Infinite Technologies say many operators are reporting that 80% of their Wap traffic is e-mail related, it is a far from established user application.

For instance, the fact that over half the population of the UK now have a mobile phone, and that currently there are only about 200,000 Wap users in the UK able to take advantage of mobile e-mail, illustrates the point.

Brett Warthen, chief executive officer of Infinite Technologies, says, "While so much e-mail traffic through operator portals may demonstrate that they are weak in other content areas, it is clear that e-mail is a service that gives mobile users a reason to use mobile services in the first place.

"E-mail is personalised, relevant content, and in many cases, mobile access to e-mail services delivers a real quantifiable value to the end-user. As an application with broad horizontal market appeal, mobile e-mail services will keep users returning to the mobile portal, and give the opportunity for users to be exposed to new portal services."

BT Cellnet's Genie portal is planning a number of improvements to its Wap services. Genie UK managing director Laurence Alexander says the main problem with Wap is that it takes too many clicks to do anything.

He says Genie's approach is to make it possible for users to do more things with fewer clicks, and Genie's one-click betting service is one of the first services to benefit from this approach.

This month, Genie will offer something more useful to business users, in the form of a unified messaging service for e-mails serving more than one account. This offering also includes a voice recognition facility which allows users to dictate e-mails onto the phone, thus saving them the long and laborious process of keying into a tiny keyboard.

Other barriers to firms testing and implementing Wap include the expense and lack of security, but again, remedies are on their way to help solve these problems.

A deal last month between Motorola and security company Baltimore Technologies is set to give Wap the security user boost it needs.

The pair are planning to deliver true end-to-end security between users' mobile devices and the Wap servers which control transactions. Until now, there has only been Class 2 level encryption and authentication in mobile transactions, which means only the server processing the data is truly secure.

This has seen a Wap server being secured by wireless transport layer security (WTLS) but the mobile device generating the transaction is far from secure.

This is why the number of transactions involving cash using mobile devices has been pitifully small, as the suppliers could not guarantee that the data being sent by users would be fully protected - they could not guarantee the basic requirements of any digital transaction: confidentiality, authentication, authorisation, integrity and non-repudiation.

Class 3 authentication, an extension to WTLS, is now expected to come from the Motorola/Baltimore deal. This means that Wap will now take a new turn, away from the unprotected football scores and restaurant bookings which have been the mainstay of mobile services, with users being able to use more powerful encryption and digital certificates on their phones.

Most banks, for instance, have been unwilling so far to offer anything more than account balances and similar low grade facilities via Wap. But the fact that users will soon be able to carry their own encrypted digital certificates on their mobiles, will mean that companies will be more confident about offering the opportunity for real trades, without the fear of being sued if something goes wrong when users connect to their servers.

And on the server side, firms will be able to now test Wap much more cheaply, as Wap moves towards an open source environment.

With the arrival of new Cambridge company 3G LAB, an organisation's IT department may now be able to play with Wap as much as they like, for free.

3G LAB has just launched its Alligata Wap server which is open source. This means it uses free operating software, and 3G LAB can claim it is 10 times cheaper than using a traditional hardware/software Wap combination from companies like Nokia and Phone.com.

The Alligata solution - which also supports short message service applications - relies on the Linux operating system, which is also open source. 3G LAB makes its money by charging users for server support, if they need it, just like Linux distributor Red Hat for instance.

But theoretically, if you have talented technical people at your firm, you should be able to try out supporting a Wap site with no more investment needed other than dusting down a spare server and loading on the free software from 3G LAB.

Established and new companies are now taking advantage of the innovative side of Wap, which means the technology clearly has some life left in it.

While many users are dissatisfied with Wap, and only a minority are prepared to base their mobile strategy on the protocol, those who want to dive in now to mobile commerce will need to work with it - warts and all.

NatWest Bank

The bank is now offering its 400,000 online banking customers the chance to link their accounts to a wireless application protocol (Wap) service over BT Cellnet. Nat West started conducting trials over the Orange service at the beginning of this year, but currently just among NatWest and Orange employees.

With the commercial BT Cellnet service, users have the option of using either the Siemens C35 or Nokia 7110 Wap phones to view balances and recent transactions; transfer cash between NatWest accounts and pay bills to companies which are already registered with the user's fixed online service.

With the fixed online service users don't have to key in credit card numbers on their currently insecure Wap phones - the credit card numbers are already stored on secure NatWest servers.

Amazon.com and Nokia

Online bookseller Amazon.com is developing mobile sales in partnership with Nokia.

The mobile phone manufacturer has its own mobile Internet gateway in the form of www.club.nokia, which has different European versions. Amazon recently set up a link between this gateway and its own online ordering system for the UK.

Users wanting to buy books from Amazon using their Wap phones have to visit the www.club.nokia site in their country to gain a user name and password. They can then use this with their Wap phone to get a direct link to the Amazon order site.

Amazon has combined existing customer and product databases with the new service to get its Amazon.com Anywhere mobile strategy off the ground. Established Amazon customers can also use their existing accounts and securely stored billing information to place orders via Wap.

Read more on Wireless networking