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Marketing WAP over GPRS
Marketing WAP over GPRS

Handset manufacturers did a poor job marketing WAP. With GPRS they'll get another chance, but they'll have to use it wisely.

The relationship between WAP and marketing has been mediocre since WAP's introduction more than a year ago. In commercials created by the handset vendors, the WAP phones were ascribed the most fantastic features...features that wouldn't look bad in an episode of "Star Trek," but that were far from reality. The handset manufacturers rolled over each other in announcing that it was their device that made the Internet mobile. It took some time before there were enough acceptable WAP handsets on the market. The focus itself at that moment was primarily on marketing the technology instead of the handy services that could be accessed with a WAP handset. And if there's one thing a customer does not care about, it's technology. Their concerns are only that the product functions as described, is affordable, and above all, has added value.

By now even the public knows that the mobile Internet is not the same as "the Internet, but mobile." They feel deceived because WAP does not provide the same user experience as a multimedia PC with a large monitor and equivalent price tag. In my opinion it's senseless to complain that the public could have known that a mobile phone does not have the same capabilities as a multimedia PC.

When a perception rules, it rules, and a lot of effort is needed to change it. By carefully starting to put the emphasis on the added value of the services within the WAP portal, the industry tried to change the tide and influence this perception. The typical characteristics of a handset - using it wherever you are, the personal character, and instant availability - will not be forgotten in this process.

On a large scale the industry gets a new chance to market WAP when General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) arrives - at least, in those areas of the world where GSM networks have been rolled out. In essence GPRS is an addition to the GSM network, with which empty space on radio-channels is used to send packages of data. The difference between standard circuit-switched technology and packet-switched technology in mobile networks is to some extent the same as the difference between accessing the fixed Internet through an analog modem and accessing it through your cable. Although the wildest stories about GPRS appear in the media, the technology itself will offer some substantial improvements to the current situation. And the WAP user with a GPRS handset will profit.

First of all the speed of using WAP will increase some. Where now one "time slot" is used for data transfer, it will be possible to combine several. However, the number of time slots that can be combined depends on the implementation of GPRS on both the mobile phone and in the mobile network. Besides that there needs to be enough empty time slots to transfer data, leading to the fact that a guaranteed speed can't be given. A transfer speed that's a multiple of the current speed will therefore certainly not be reached. Second, the long dial-in procedure for setting up a WAP connection will, for a large part, be history with GPRS. A GPRS handset has some kind of stand-by function that enables it to instantly send or receive packages of data, although sometimes it will have a small start-up time. The last feature, and maybe the most important, is that the user will be paying for packages of transferred data instead of for the seconds of being online as with circuit-switched networks. When reading a small article or typing an e-mail on a mobile phone, the user will pay only for what's been sent or received.

Marketing WAP over GPRS will be a tough game because of the perception mentioned earlier. It will be even harder if the perception that WAP is nothing and will be nothing doesn't change. Hopefully the technology itself and a focus on added customer value will improve public opinion. To succeed, the handset manufacturers will lean more and more on the network operator.

It's the network operator that knows the customer and the market and is in a perfect position to draw out this value proposition. But the costs have to be weighed. On GPRS these costs will largely be the sent and received packages of data. Sounds easy, but try to explain to a customer that requesting a daily horoscope generates a certain amount of traffic, calculated in bytes. And also try to explain that this amount of bytes is, for a large part, and certainly not completely, based on the length of the prediction.

The whole problem could be eliminated by asking a fixed fee for unlimited mobile data access. But for most network operators this solution will not be viable. They've learned from the cable companies that saw their quality of service going down as rapidly as the number of Napster users grew. Another model in which, on GPRS, the user still pays per second is interesting, but doesn't comply with the standby concept of GPRS. Therefore it seems that the industry is choosing a model in which the customer gets billed per kilobyte, but requires a lot of explanation as to what the costs per service are. Eventually the mobile industry will manage to market mobile services, simply because it has to.

Considering the improvements that GPRS brings, I think it's a welcome addition to the circuit-switched GSM network. But although most GSM network operators have their networks ready for GPRS, we're still waiting. Waiting for the same handset manufacturers that showed us these fantastic handsets about a year ago and still have not delivered. And there's not a single manufacturer of note who, without blushing, has showed a working end model that can be sold to a mass public.

History repeats itself. I hope that the industry has learned one lesson before "good-enough" GPRS handsets arrive - to never ever again make the mistake of creating false expectations by using deceiving marketing tricks. If not it could have serious consequences for the acceptance of mobile services. And it's the acceptance of these services that are important to earn back the billions that have been, and will be, spent on 3G licenses, networks, and services.

About Paul C. Eijkemans
Paul C. Eijkemans, m-commerce editor of WBT, works for a worldwide
consulting company in the wireless and mobile commerce business.
Before that he managed his own e-commerce company and did various
Internet projects in areas such as e-food,
ticket reservation systems, and entertainment.
In Japan he did research on mobile commerce
initiatives, including 3G developments and i-mode.
In Southeast Asia he conducted research on the
broadband network Singapore ONE and the use of
IT in the port of Singapore; in South America he
did research on the position of Chile's IT and
communications sector. He holds a master's degree
in information management/economics from the
University of Rotterdam.

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