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INSIGHT: Why WAP phones matter for corporates

Today you can buy a WAP (wireless application protocol) enabled mobile phone on the high street. What you can’t do is use it for anything particularly interesting – yet.

Today’s WAP phones are limited to providing access to data services at a miserly 9.6 kilobits per second – that’s less than a quarter of the speed of the average dial-up modem on a PC. This is just about good enough to download short text e-mails or to get a few stock prices from your favourite on-line broker (assuming said broker offers WAP pages). What it won’t do is let you surf the Web, download a paper on a technical topic, or access your corporate network to view a colleague’s PowerPoint presentation.

However, this is a transitional moment in mobile telecommunications, and WAP was never designed for today’s access speeds. It anticipates two future technologies. Some time around September this year UK mobile service providers will begin rolling out GPRS services (the so called ‘two-and-a-half generation’ service), which will offer at least 28Kbps data access. Then, around the end of 2001, we should see the first 3G services, which will be based on the UMTS standard. When this happens, users will see a dramatic increase in speed, up to a theoretical maximum of two megabits per second, which is 200 times faster than current WAP speeds.

But let’s start by giving WAP and the WAP Forum its due. What WAP does is rather clever. A WAP server takes a glossy, image laden, richly presented Web page (written in HTML) and strips it down to bare text, which is re-written in Wireless Mark-Up Language (WML). WAP is smart enough to understand the screen size of the receiving device (which varies between models), and adjusts the output to fit it.

The resulting stripped-down page downloads reasonably quickly, and it demands very little sophistication from the mobile phone by way of an LCD screen. However, to eyes grown accustomed to looking at full-screen Web pages, WAP messages look like a bad version of the pre-Windows operating system, DOS. Black text on a green screen is not appealing and the results look like a backward step – which is not good for WAP.

Besides, the world already has Short Messaging Service (SMS), which enables simple text messages to be sent between mobile phones. So, again, who needs WAP? Moreover, if fast data access speeds are going to be available somewhere within the next eight to 18 months, why not put a proper browser and a larger LCD screen into a mobile phone and treat it like a hand-held computer? Nokia has already had some success with the 9110, a reasonable-sized mobile phone that contains a personal organiser-style keyboard and a screen.

However, according to Mark Squires, UK business development manager at Nokia, WAP does have a purpose. Although he believes mobile displays will inevitably get big enough for ordinary Web browsing, he says WAP is perfect for e-commerce and forms-based applications. Both of these matter hugely to corporates, and WAP provides an extremely low-cost platform for accessing them.

‘WAP is not about Web browsing. It is about buying anything and everything direct from your mobile phone. And since the network knows where you are (depending on which cell base-station is nearest your phone) it opens the way for location-based advertising and various location-based services,’ he says.

Also, since people with WAP phones already have a credit arrangement with their mobile service provider, there is no need to transmit credit card details when making a purchase. Instantly, one of the biggest phobias about on-line shopping vanishes. With tens of millions of WAP-enabled mobile phones out there (40 million by 2001 in Europe, according to some estimates), that adds up to a huge boost for Internet retailers

WAP is also ideally suited to forms-based communication. Writing WAP applications is child’s play for anyone with HTML skills and a day’s training in WML. So WAP phones offer an ideal data forwarding and data capture device for armies of engineers and road warriors of every stripe.

Maconomy and Intentia have both demonstrated WAP applications for Financial Director. Both worked well, but they were somewhat limited: basic and clunky to navigate. Connectivity company Attachmate is working on reducing almost any screen accessible within a corporation (such as accounts and customer records) to WAP dimensions, but the question remains: just how in-touch do you need to be with that sort of information? Can’t most of it wait until you’re sitting at a computer?

Nevertheless, Squires argues that while high-speed 3G mobile data services will encourage the widespread take up of hand-held Web devices with proper browsers and decent screens, their numbers are unlikely to begin to challenge the hordes of WAP phones for a long time to come – so WAP has the traditional ‘first-mover’ advantage.

‘If I had a single message for FDs about WAP, I’d say this is the cheapest real-time mobile technology platform around,’ Squires says. ‘It lends itself to adding value to any number of basic business processes. Grab it with both hands.’

For a directory of WAP sites visit (the site was still under construction as we went to press).

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