Wap may yet dominate the world

Despite well-publicised shortcomings over its speed and lack of proper testing, Wap services are set to have half a billion users by 2002. Its legions of...

Despite well-publicised shortcomings over its speed and lack of proper testing, Wap services are set to have half a billion users by 2002. Its legions of critics may want to think again before dismissing Wireless Application Protocol as a dead loss.

Given the complete battering that Wap (Wireless Application Protocol) has taken in both the national and specialist press, you could be forgiven for believing that it is dead-in-the-water technology. Those who have expended time and effort on Wap applications and services, however, argue that Wap needs more time to be both better understood and more efficiently implemented. Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor are good Wap applications.

Just doing the maths illustrates how important Wap will soon become. Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently estimated that last year there were about 240 million internet enabled computers compared to 480 million mobile phones. By 2002, HP believes there will be around one billion mobile phones of which roughly half will be Wap enabled.

Market analyst Ovum thinks that growth will be a little slower with 684 million people worldwide possessing a Wap phone by 2006. Whichever way you look at the numbers, though, Wap represents an enormous potential market.

Currently the biggest stick with which to beat Wap is speed. Present data throughput speeds over GSM are around 9.6kbps - although in the UK, 14.4-28.8kbps is feasible with Orange. Most observers agree that by early 2001, GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) will offer 50Kbit/s - which is the same throughput currently being offered by a high speed (V.90) land-line modems. The irony is that Wap’s much-praised arch-rival, NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode only actually offers 9.6Kbit/s. The big difference is that i-mode offers an ‘always-on’ IP based connection right now whereas GSM users will have to wait for GPRS for an IP based (and, by implication, lower cost) data service.

Nonetheless, Wap supporters, such as Staffan Pehrson, general manager for mobile internet enablers at Ericsson, argue that many Wap services have implemented inefficiently.

He explains that most Wap traffic passes initially through an access server, then onto a Wap gateway and then finally arrives at the application server. If all of these processes are designed correctly - as some of Ericsson’s customers have done - the connect time can fall from somewhere in the region of 60 seconds down to six seconds, says Pehrson.

Some UK-based Wap services use modem (analogue) connections thereby adding at least 30 seconds to the connect time compared to using ISDN. Pehrson also estimates that there are around 100,000 developers currently working on Wap projects, with approximately 2,000 new developers joining weekly. Consequently, we can expect Wap services to improve significantly over time.

One advantage that Wap enjoys over i-mode is that Wap applications can be developed in XML and then migrated to both WML (for Wap) and HTML (for Web) servers.

The same does not apply to i-mode which uses compact HTML (cHTML) which is basically a bastardised version of HTML. XML is, of course, favoured by Microsoft for its .net framework.

According to Wap developers, GD Consulting, one of the major failings with existing Wap services is a lack of proper testing. Being first to market and selling in large volumes, Nokia’s 7110 product has established itself as the leading Wap handset. Therefore some services have assumed that testing against the 7110 is sufficient whereas comprehensive testing of all browsers and gateways is the only real guarantee of a high quality service.

Materna’s sales and marketing director, Michael Ohajuru, claims that his company’s Anny Way Wap gateway has been tested against all 12 Wap handsets currently available including two separate versions of the Nokia 7110 and Motorola P7389 handsets.

Some analysts have suggested that it will not be until the arrival of improvements to Wap specifications - such as support for “push” technology in Wap version 1.2.1 - that real benefits will accrue to Wap service providers.

However, Charles Morrissey, managing editor with Teletext, believes that revenue streams can be generated for Wap content through the use of SMS. He sees premium rate SMS messages along with free but ‘branded’ SMS messages as being more than able to cover costs. Teletext generates some 100,000 updates weekly to 6,000 pages - all of which can potentially be made available to Wap users.

Some observers view the current user expectation and current Wap experience as potentially damaging to 3G services in the long run.

Others argue that having paid high fees for their 3G licences will goad operators into maximising the potential of their existing services, particularly data services such as Wap.

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