Users caught in Wap crossfire

The telecoms network war rages and Wap is being heavily hyped, but the new handsets could soon be scrap

The telecoms network war rages and Wap is being heavily hyped, but the new handsets could soon be scrap

Telecoms networks are at war over the transition path to third generation (3G) mobile services, leaving users in a quandary over mobile e-commerce plans.

Three of the four main mobile networks have launched wireless application protocol (Wap) services using GSM mobile phones. But these Wap phones could be obsolete by July, when BT rolls out its higher-speed general packet radio service (GPRS). And this will be superseded by 3G mobile services in two years time.

Meanwhile Orange, which launched the first UK Wap service in November, is backing another technology, called HSCSD, instead of the move to GPRS.

HSCSD is a 28kbps wireless link card that plugs into a laptop. While today's GSM phones communicate at 9.6kbps, GPRS has a theoretical speed of 115kbps.

An Orange spokesman said, "We don't believe GPRS will be around in a consumer-friendly form this year, but we will have HSCSD available in April, launched as a £300 PC plug-in card."

Critics say users will not like the GPRS pricing model, which charges by the megabyte not the minute.

Ivan McDonald, managing director of eWare, which is developing a wireless CRM system for MCI Worldcom, said, "It's not clear whether some firms will bypass GPRS. The mindset shift among users who have to pay for it will hold it up, but those who invest in GPRS will have the edge when 3G comes.

"They'll have legacy technology, but they will be ahead with a business model for 'always on' services. GPRS is a stepping stone that has to be taken: if anybody takes it everybody has to take it," McDonald added.

BT Cellnet and Vodafone are backing GPRS. BT will roll out a service covering 75% of the UK by July 2000. A BT spokesman, criticised HSCSD. He said, "We will not provide it. If you've gone for that you've put your money on the wrong horse."

The row has left users asking why they should invest in Wap/GSM handsets today, given the low data speed and potential obsolescence.

Neil Morse, managing director of Freeway Commerce, which links back-office systems to the Web and EDI, said, "I wouldn't buy into it now. It's like having a Robin Reliant with a fantastic paint job. Wap is only useful if all you want to do is to extract data from a static source."

However, Morse said that with greater transfer speeds, Wap could transform the supply chain. He cited the example of supermarket EDI orders, where basic data could be shipped from the order and flashed to a tractor in the field. "That's the killer app," he said.

When asked whether the GSM roll out of Wap was aimed primarily at gadget-conscious consumers, a BT spokesman said, "There are always going to be early adopters. But we are making no bones about the fact that GPRS will be up and running in six months time."

McDonald said the inbuilt obsolescence may not worry corporate users. "There's a lot of cynicism about Wap. But the business decision is: do you take a £250 mobile handset or buy a £2,500 laptop and set up a whole network infrastructure of your own?" he said.

This supplier bickering comes at a time when decisions on mobile strategies are moving up the IT agenda. Wap is under IT's remit because it is part of e-commerce, it involves Web programming and a server system - and because handset makers are incorporating the three PDA operating systems (Epoc, PalmOS and Windows CE) into devices.

Many IT departments are working on palmtop policies, often standardising on one of the three operating systems. Meanwhile, many companies have a mobile phone policy that links them to a single supplier or network. From the middle of this year the two policies could be pulled in different directions as handset makers incorporate the rival palmtop operating systems into their devices.

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