Jan. 10, 2001 02:44 PM
by Tom Dibble
Welcome to the inaugural issue of what in our humble opinion will become North America's compulsory reading on what wireless is all about and what it's becoming before you guys and gals overtake us! Through the technological ages, the U.S. has always held the whip hand over Europe. That has now changed in one industry: wireless. For the first time in a while, Europeans have a massive head start on a number of different fronts. These range from carrier network technology standardization and WAP handset penetration to cultural acceptance. But it's not been an easy ride. Europe has been struggling for months now in a battle to win the consumer over to buying new WAP handsets and making them confident that WAP is actually worthwhile. Which in turn raises the question of just who gave WAP a bad name.
It's clear and true that WAP isn't exactly coming to terms with its original raison d'être. But who's to blame? Let's take the biggest culprit in the UK, BT Cellnet's Genie brand. The marketing department of Genie had been very busy creatively engineering what their visual identification of WAP would be like and how best to deliver it to a disconcerted UK audience. So, in typical large-budget marketing- campaign style, a TV and press campaign was launched, delivering what the consumers thought to be a fantastic leap in mobile technology and something that might even aid them in their day-to-day activities. A leap in technology it is. Revolutionize people's lives? No. The argument here is that this is what marketers and ad agencies do best. I don't disagree, but there's a fine line between what was going on with some of these marketing campaigns and blatant lies.
At the other end of the spectrum you have the wireless media owners, the companies and start-ups that have - the majority of the time - come from or have established wired propositions. The problem with this is that the mind-set being used to create a wireless environment is focused on wired offerings. The user interfaces on the thousands of WAP sites I have come across are problematic to say the least (the ones that work, that is!).
Then we get onto the subject of actually trying to define what propositions are worthwhile over the wireless platform. To date, the main bulk of WAP sites that seem to be making any kind of ripples in the WAP world are mainly financial, stocks and shares, entertainment, and gaming, also other offerings that propose themselves as anything point-of-presence based. So you see, between the networks and the media owners with their array of both useful but mainly pointless content, and the misconceptions the marketing campaigns are seeding in the minds of potential users - somewhere between these are the end users who get a taste of both sides and are stung equally.
Let's face it. WAP is not the be-all and end-all of this converging industry. In fact, its only mission in life was to set off the progression of technologies that would get us to seamless integration between desktop and handheld devices over wireless. However, for companies to be able to understand the real value of wireless data in a variety of situations, WAP is an okay testing ground and it has commercial possibilities also. I'll be the first to admit WAP's not great, but it's a start. And even when it's superseded, we'll still be governed by bandwidth, browsers, and end-user acceptance. So nothing really changes.
I think people really have to get a grip between what speeds these new emerging technologies are going to have and what the networks will allow the end user access to. At the end of the day, bandwidth is a commodity for mobile networks, and when we get to 3G networks in Europe - say, in about five years - there's no way the end user will access 2MB speed. The current consumer takeup of WAP is admittedly very slow. Handsets are literally being given away. BT is handing over 330,000 WAP handsets to its banking partners. Breathe.com is giving them away free. Club.Nation.co.uk is doing the same also. All in an attempt to boost flagging interest. And it's not just consumer markets that are having problems. A survey carried out by Vanson Bourne (IRC) for CSC found that 60% of businesses have chosen to miss the boat. The lack of interest was put down to prioritization or to the conclusion that WAP was maybe inappropriate. You'd have thought in this generation people would have learnt, from the market trends of the wired Internet, to have enough faith in the emerging wireless economy. Well, I know where my bets are hedged and who with.
At the end of the day, WAP is here. It's here to stay. And until something else better comes along, deal with it or don't. It's as simple as that. Many heavy hitters are now making their moves - Carphone Warehouse, and AOL with their m-viva portal, a particularly good example of a recent major movement. The content sitting within these is actually rather good and it works, which is the main thing! There are thousands of WAP sites now in Europe, but only a handful have really been thought about and planned carefully. WAP is 90% planning and 10% execution. "Think wireless" is my advice to anyone undertaking a wired-to-wireless project. After all, the mobile Internet is just that, mobile. When people are at home and need to look up something on the Internet, they'll do it on their PC. When they're away from their PC and need to find out something, they'll do it on their wireless device, whatever device that may be. I have been an m-evangelist for over two years now. Fighting the decline and lack of acceptance of WAP and yet fighting for the end user also, in an attempt to gain worthy and useful mobile content.
Trying to mediate between the two battling sides has not been easy and there's a long road ahead, but one thing I can say is you should take careful note of what is happening in Europe. It's a great test bed to see what should and shouldn't be done outside cultural confines. European companies made the mistake from a content perspective of not looking into i-mode activities. We tried to reinvent the wheel, and it cost us time and money. In North America you have the luxury of time. Use it wisely.
Chapter and Verse on WAP
by Tom Hume
Over the last 22 months, here in Europe anyhow, WAP has grown from techie acronym to prominent buzzword. Overhyped and misrepresented to consumers as "the Web on your phone," WAP is best thought of as the first step in bringing wireless data services to the mass market. It's therefore useful to take a look at the origins of WAP, to get a better understanding of the context in which it operates. In 1995 a small U.S. company named Libris Inc. received its first funding, took on its first offices, and demonstrated early versions of a phone-based browser system at Comdex. Renamed Unwired Planet in 1996, they released their first commercial service (AT&T Wireless PocketNet, enabling receipt of e-mail and stock quotes wirelessly). By 1997 they had investment from QualComm and released several new services (SuperPhone, with GTE Wireless, and Bell Atlantic Mobile Cellscape); in mid-1997, after the release of their second-generation browser and server software, they cofounded the WAP Forum with Ericsson, Nokia, and Motorola.
The larger players who cofounded the WAP Forum had been similarly busy, developing their own wireless data solutions, which tended to leverage lessons learned from the Web. Nokia was working with Narrow Band Sockets and a markup language called TTML (Tagged Text Markup Language) and Ericsson had developed ITTP (Intelligent Terminal Transfer Protocol).
In May 1998 the WAP Forum published its first standard, a protocol that combined the best of the participants' technologies (ITTP, Narrow Band Sockets, and Unwired Planet's HDML - Handheld Device Markup Language): WAP 1.0. Independent of the bearer, WAP works over different underlying networks - despite pressure from network operators to tie it in with GSM (Global System for Mobile) telecommunication and give them a competitive advantage. The WAP Forum's membership quickly expanded (other companies had been invited to join from January 1998 onwards) - going from four to 37 companies by May 1998, to 120 by August 1999, to over 530 by July 2000. In June 1999 WAP 1.1 was announced, which sought to start converging WAP with standards from the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium, the industry body responsible for developing protocols used on the Internet). WAP 1.2, available now through developer kits from some handset manufacturers, builds on WAP 1.1 with support for "pushing" information out to phones and other miscellaneous enhancements.
Today WAP technologies are provided by a range of vendors. Phone.com (the name Unwired Planet took in April 1999; now Openwave Systems), Nokia, and Ericsson are still major players supporting both the client, with their browsers in handsets (the Nokia 7110, in particular, embodies the public perception of WAP in the UK) and also the back end with their gateway and server products. In addition, smaller vendors and open source products (like Kannel, a product initiated by Finnish developers WapIT) have sprung up, indicating grassroots support for WAP. Current efforts within the UK are now focused on marketing WAP as a consumer proposition, primarily through developing key services (such as banking) of genuine utility.
As for the future of WAP, well, competition of sorts appeared recently in the form of NTT DoCoMo's i-mode system (operating in Japan). In reality this isn't an immediate threat to WAP, as the strength of i-mode is its infrastructure (a proper always-on packet-switched network, and integration with billing systems to enable true micropayment m-commerce). However, the existence of a perceived competitor seems to have pushed the WAP Forum forwards; they are now planning convergence with i-mode by moving toward adopting XHTML specifications from the W3C. NTT DoCoMo and several other Japanese companies are also members of the WAP Forum - which may help limit the fragmentation of wireless standards. Other developments are in the phone networks, which are moving toward General Packet Radio Service in the UK, and running trials of 3G networks; as bandwidth increases and (importantly, given the current start-up speed of a WAP session) phones get "always-on" capability, WAP services will become more useful. Larger color screens should be expected, and some experts predict increased use of voice to interact with applications. Improved wireless portals that demonstrate intelligence, personalization (particularly through location-based services that deliver content based on a user's current location and are in development now), and more consumer-oriented, usable services should be expected. These will benefit the currently ailing reputation of WAP.
Finally, commerce should come to phones. While a few merchants, such as Amazon, are already providing sales over WAP, the immediate needs of a phone user are perhaps better served through micropayment m-commerce of the type supported by NTT DoCoMo in Japan - so this is a problem for the networks to address.
We see a rosy future for the mobile Internet, especially once a number of advances (technical, social, and commercial) have been made. Until then, WAP provides a solid means of applying some of the lessons we've learned from the Web, and coming to grips with the first truly mass market, personal digital medium.
Whose Time Are We On, Anyway?
by Richard Weeks
There's a phrase that can be heard within tense meeting rooms the world over as deals are struck and contracts signed. Accompanied by a sense of great urgency and of there being a Great Deal More just around the corner, deadlines a few weeks hence are casually thrown into the fray with the adage: "Well, we're on Internet time."
If you're fast in the online business, you're not fast enough. Careers and fortunes are made and lost in the blink of an eye. A lucky few have mastered the tricky balancing act but now find they can't rest on their laurels just yet, for we're entering a new age with a new timeline to dance to and it's called wireless time. If you thought the Web was fast-moving and frantic with change, wireless is moving so fast even the telcos are having trouble keeping up and the Web is playing second fiddle (in fact, there's even a conference planned to bring beleaguered secretaries and PAs up to date with the increasing momentum of change within the wireless arena).
The pace is giddy. Investment by key players is in magnitudes of billions of dollars and no one is suggesting that this might be a simple passing fad.
This general long-term acceptance of the new wireless world is the crux of a problem that energetic investors in wireless services could soon be dealing with themselves. The need to make a short-term gain is eclipsing the need to provide a service for the long term. This is understandable in part. However, the fallout from strategies aimed at addressing perceived short-term consumer needs utilizing WAP principally within cellular phones has largely failed to make an impact on the public.
To understand the myriad ways in which this new technology can be made to be acceptable to the mass market requires a shift of imagination that might make some sci-fi authors wince. The need to think beyond the range of a quarterly report is paramount. It's a danger to focus too closely on short-term success for individual and corporate gain. It's important to think beyond the lifetime of individual careers and immediate group expectations.
To truly bring the promised wonder of the unwired world to the masses, to truly change the way we live, we need to think big, think of the future, and sacrifice the here and now.
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