While significant uses of mobile e-commerce, or “m-commerce” are evolving, the infrastructure development “still has a long way to go” says Frank Kaplan, vice-resident sales Asia-Pacific for wireless platform company Tantau.
Tantau was split off from Compaq's ex-Tandem operation, 18 months ago. It is best known in New Zealand for having equipped the Stock Exchange with the platform for wireless trading. Kaplan acknowledges there are shortcomings in the present form of WAP – some users report patchy communications and phones “hanging” and needing to be restarted, and it offers far from a full set of features for m-commerce.
“But this is not about WAP, or GPRS; it’s about the concept of m-commerce. There are lots of other devices and protocols to come in the next few years. By 2002, every car will be a wireless [communications] device,” he predicts, with navigational applications available through the internet.
Already, 70% of wireless data communication is done in the car, he says. Bluetooth, the short-range wireless communications chip, when it comes into full use, will be part of that. It will offer, for example, a “wireless wallet” that communicates with the bank through the car’s internet connection.
As far as applications go, too, “we are very much in the first generation,” he says. The information you get now on a WAP connection “weather, sport, [passive] stock listings, people will not pay for.”
Tantau’s market is exclusively among financial institutions and brokers, but even within this limited universe there are applications with a good potential market, he says, beginning by monitoring shares and executing trades on-line while waiting at the airport for the next flight.
The drawback to putting something as sensitive as a share trade on mobile is the risk of the connection dropping out momentarily halfway through the transaction, Kaplan acknowledges. But Tantau, he claims, has that problem solved with server-side session management.
“Our server knows where you’re up to in the transaction and if you get back in a minute or less, it’ll pick up at that point. If it’s longer than that, it’ll just cancel the session and you’ll have to start again.”
Even with current technology and currently offered services, says Kaplan, he was able - while delayed at an airport due to bad weather - to link with an airline schedule service and tell less fortunately equipped passengers whether their onward flights were departing on time or whether they were delayed too. If they found delays further along “it saved them a lot of worry,” he says. “I wonder how many of them are now going to look into buying a phone like mine?”
Any internet service contemplating wireless will have to be very conscious of choosing a scalable solution, “because this market’s really going to take off,” he says. Traffic will not only grow in volume, it will become unusually “spiky,” rising at times like smoko and lunch-breaks.
The biggest disadvantage for the user will be having to change mobile phones for a later model more frequently, because the existing one will not support new services.