WAP's credibility gap

New Zealand has one commercial service, another trial and developers coming on board every day.

In Japan, mobile Internet technology called DoCoMo gained 10 million customers in 19 months, proving in one, massive step that it is a viable market. DoCoMo has its own set of standards for delivery, however. For the rest of us, there's WAP.

WAP is a set of generally accepted standards for accessing Internet applications over cellphones and other handheld devices. It has only been around for six months, but has grown prodigiously.

Enormous opportunities are being touted, from the mundane to the exotic to the plain annoying. WAP permits the user to get news updates, email, sports information and weather on the go. It provides walkabout gambling and dating services and it will provide the possibility of serving up specific advertising as a user passes a shop door.

But what does this all mean from a development perspective? First, of course, everyone is into it, including telephone companies, handset manufacturers, Web hosting companies, software developers, Web site developers and content providers of all types. There are numerous opportunities for collaborative efforts.

Secondly, bear in mind that this is the early beginnings of the technology. Speculation abounds, and many developers are waiting until alternative telecomms standards like GPRS and CDMA bring higher bandwidth and more secure connections. But now is a good time for testing, since Vodafone's mobile phone gateway is up and running commercially, and Telecom is running trials.

What is WAP?

Although WAP has been the subject of considerable recent media attention, a good deal of misinformation has been circulated.

WAP is an enabler of Internet services on mobile phones and handheld devices. Although it is aligned with third-generation wireless technology, it can operate without it. Neither is it restricted to GSM technology, which Vodafone uses; it can run on a variety of wireless systems.

It does, however, run better where more bandwidth is available, and is less expensive if the user pays for data rather than time. It differs from simple mobile messaging services in providing an Internet-oriented system, with special provision for low bandwidth transmission.

WAP is basically designed to provide Internet, intranet and Web-based services on wireless data networks. The market for these devices was carefully factored into the design.

Wireless devices work best when they are inexpensive, easy to use and run specific types of tasks. Relative cheapness means that screen space is at a premium, and generally without frills. Ease of use dictates a simplified user interface.

The specific tasks likely to be undertaken by wireless users differ from standard Web usage in that information must be immediate, message length is small and time will not be spent browsing. These factors are joined by networking issues, such as a relatively low bandwidth - as low as 9600bit/s, at present - plus less stability, higher latency and higher per-minute costs. WAP was designed to address these issues by creating an Internet connection strategy based upon wireless characteristics.

WAP is made up of a programming model, a markup language (similar to HTML) to connect to the telco's Internet gateway, a browser (micro-sized) specification, a network protocol and a framework for wireless telephony applications (WTA) such as call control.

In operation, WAP phones (clients) connect to WAP gateways which translate data between an Internet server and the WAP device. The WAP gateway is provided by the telco - Vodafone or Telecom at present - and it is invisible to the user. Devices use the wireless markup language (WML). The Internet server itself communicates with the Internet or intranet in standard HTML.

WAP is widely supported throughout the wireless community, and its standards body is the WAP Forum. The forum includes all of the major handset manufacturers and a large number of cellular network providers. Industry membership has grown from 250 to 550 companies since January of this year.

WAP is already in use around the world, in support of a wide variety of services. It is particularly prevalent in countries where GSM is strong, since GSM has some early messaging advantages.

There are over 300,000 WAP developers today. WAP has really only been available for the past six months, but it has already developed a substantial worldwide following. Current applications include financial services, news, weather, sports, traffic reports and even online dating. As it become more widely recognised, truly "mobilecentric" applications are expected to emerge, such as location-based services that rely upon GPS or cellular triangulation and provide a specific message related to the area in which the user is standing.

Who's doing what

Both confidence and doubt about the technology exist in this part of the world. Australian telecomms analyst Paul Budde is sceptical of WAP in the mainstream market, saying consumers won't pay for services, though he believes business applications such as sales packages over WAP may take off.

In contrast to this view, there were 21 entries in the inaugural Nokia WAP awards held last month, with the overall winner taking it away for a bus schedules program and a work management system.

Typical of the new speed of technological spread to New Zealand, WAP services are already available from both cellular service providers. Vodafone has its WAP capability available to all subscribers, while Telecom has a WAP trial in progress, and will be rolling out WAP as a part of its network upgrade next year.

Vodafone launched a WAP version of its Internet portal, "My Vodafone", in May. Portal services include access to email, a calendar service with reminders, an address book, a bookmark facility and information services including news, weather, share prices, horoscopes, lotto results, sports and so forth.

Location-based services are to be introduced soon, and Vodafone is also working to develop business-related services in partnerships with IBM and Ericsson. There are currently three WAP handsets available for Vodafone WAP - the Nokia 7110, Ericsson R320 and Motorola V2288. Pricing is similar to other Vodafone handsets.

Vodafone's next phase in mobile networking is to introduce General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), which is currently being trialled, and will be launched commercially by the end of the year. GPRS will bring much higher bandwidths (from the current 9600bit/s to something like residential dial-up rates) and continuous online service. GPRS complements WAP, and will provide considerably more flexible usage than is available at present.

Because Vodafone's WAP is available on a commercial basis, a number of applications have already been developed to support it, and it is being used as a testbed for a variety of new uses.

Telecom's more limited WAP trial means the telco is not yet offering the service commercially. Part of the reason for this is that Telecom is in the midst of rolling out a new voice/data wireless network using a technology called CDMA, which will eventually be installed in all Telecom cell sites. The current WAP trial uses CDPD, Telecom's always-on data solution, which works with its existing D-AMPS mobile system and is currently confined to major metropolitan locations.

Telecom's trial involves about 100 handsets, and is heavily oriented toward financial services, with participants including WestpacTrust, National Bank, Lion Nathan and Transfield. As part of the trial, Telecom is also making stock market data, news and weather available to its WAP users through Xtra.

Making headway

Despite recency and relatively slow connection rates, WAP is making headway in New Zealand. Many companies are involved in trial programmes, expecting to roll out a more functional version when GPRS or CDMA are introduced.

Since the standard is not expected to change much, it makes sense to test it early and get all the bugs out. An example of such an application is a WAP system developed for Mainfreight Relocations by the Holliday Group in Christchurch.

"We're proving the technology, at this point," says Mainfreight CIO Gary Collings. "The current application is to track freight as it moves through the country. It permits our customers to dial into the network and access a variety of data about their shipments, using a cellphone.

"While this is of only marginal utility at present time, we envision eventual input into PDA devices, which will be able to use XML to process the data and determine real time scheduling. It is a maxim of the industry that 80% of moving freight is moving information. As margins shrink and just-in-time inventory places a premium on knowing shipment status, instant on-the-road information access provided through WAP will become more important."

The Holliday Group's Phil Holliday says the company has been involved with WAP from the beginning, and has already created more than half a dozen applications. "WAP is big, and it is coming, but it is currently at the early adopters' stage," says Holliday. "Telecom's trial is only to 100 handsets using CDPD, in metro areas only. Vodafone's GSM service is fully operational, but, until GPRS rolls out, there will be long connect times, limited availability and a relatively low quality of service.

"Now is definitely the time for companies who see the potential to get involved, however. It's much like the Web was five years ago. Mobile phones have a steeper takeup curve than desktop PCs had when they first appeared. We have been developing in all areas of mobile technology. It is fundamentally a different area from PCs.

"Currently, those interested are either early adopters, or companies with very specific purposes, such as Mainfreight. Among the major parties interested are the financial services. The banks are running trials on Telecom's network, and we've WAP-enabled an accounting package."

Catalyst IT in Wellington is another busy WAP developer, anticipating strong growth in this sector. "We became involved with WAP in December last year," says director Donald Christie. "We see the mobile Internet as ready to take off."

The IT consultancy, which hosts Internet systems and performs Linux-based research, says as a natural part of this business it has WAP-enabled a number of its hosted Internet applications.

"Our sites include content, such as news and sports coverage through a partnership with Newsroom. We have also created special applications, such as a job tracking system which allows service men to quote on jobs from the site."

Holliday and Christie agree that development needs to be specifically targeted toward WAP. In the job tracking application, for example, the user sets up a profile using the normal Internet; the profile sets up simple mobile choices.

When he connects to the WAP site, selection is limited to previously made choices, which eliminates searching or browsing, and is more appropriate for the small screen and lower transmission speed.

"Uptake of basic WAP phones has been very high, and service availability is growing," continues Christie. "Three months ago, we were one of a very few developers creating public WAP sites; now the number is growing daily. Development is not difficult, in that WML is very much like HTML, but some testing is required. It is also extremely important to focus upon how the site will be used - a simple conversion of a Web site to WAP will not work."

Catalyst's sites include public news and rugby sites at wapnews.co.nz, and wap.rugbylive.com. These, and all other sites mentioned here, are only accessible through a WAP browser. To preview WAP sites without a mobile phone, a number of WAP emulators are available, including standalone versions from Phone.com (founder of the WAP Forum) and EdgeMatrix, and online versions from Gelon.net and WapTiger.

Avalanche ahead

There are a variety of WAP applications already online. Public service is being provided by the Vodafone portal, with news, weather and sport. But that isn't the only WAP destination online. Because it uses the Internet and is related to Internet technology, WAP services can be found at sites around the world.

Two interesting public Internet examples from across the strait are Wapjack, a WAP site leased to Telstra, and offering online blackjack; and Soulmates, a fully integrated database-driven online dating service, with both Web and WAP access.

In the business arena, Ericsson New Zealand is about to roll out a system that delivers all Microsoft Outlook information to a WAP phone, including in-box, calendar, contacts, tasks and notes.

"Wireless messaging has been around for some time," says Telecom WAP manager David Stuart. "Affordable handsets, upcoming availability of high bandwidth solutions and the development of strong standards are now driving the industry forward. The development cycle is extremely rapid for WAP, and this may very well be the year that it really takes off."

Craig Hastings, handset maker Alcatel's senior account executive, agrees. "WAP is already here, with a heavy launch from Vodafone. Developers need to look at it now because WAP capability can provide an immediate marketing edge, and because WAP provides the most convenient access to data possible. Companies that are perceived to have the latest advance will have the advantage."

Alcatel is, of course, just introducing WAP capable phones to the New Zealand market. As are Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola.

The phones are available, the service is starting to roll, and, for the development community, this may well be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Brian Dooley is a Christchurch-based writer.

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