Is there a WAP-zap coming?

Smart phones and other devices using the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) for web browsing are drawing considerable attention, but analysts differ on what's really in store for the WAP market.

According to IDC, the number of WAP-capable phones used to access the internet worldwide will exceed 1 billion in 2003, up from 99 million by the end of this year. In 2004, IDC says the WAP-enabled connections will be 1.3 billion, close to double the 721 million wired internet connections forecast for that time.

But Ovum, an independent research firm with offices in London and Boston, has forecast slower WAP growth, partly because it only counts "active" users of the wireless web -- that is, users who will actually use the web features in the Web-enabled devices. In 2004, Ovum says, there will be 322 million active users of web microbrowser-capable phones based on WAP or other protocols. In 2006, that number will hit 684 million, with 134 million active in the US, Ovum says.

The other protocols could be based on XML, according to Ovum. The research firm predicts there will be 500 million wired internet users in 2006.

Ovum analysts said they believe WAP could be squeezed by next-generation XML in the next three years. The firm recently issued a warning that developers need to jump onto WAP fast in order to benefit from the technology.

"The entire industry is filled with hype'' about Web-enabled wireless phones, said Michele Mackenzie, an Ovum analyst in London. Phone manufacturers and application developers have been hyping expectations that are based on wired internet usage. But WAP and other wireless web applications aren't graphics-based, lack colour and are small-sized, Mackenzie noted.

The benefits, on the other hand, are personalisation of information in any location, she said.

The biggest barrier to the development of WAP or any similar protocol is still wireless bandwidth, now in the 9.6Kbps range, Mackenzie said. In two to five years, bandwidth will grow dramatically, but users will probably need to buy another handset to benefit, which may cause "customer alienation". That's one reason some wireless carriers have been slow to adopt wireless web strategies, she said.

WAP applications need to be carefully tested for every type of phone on the market, which makes the rollout of applications complex, three developers said in interviews.

"It would be hard to underestimate the amount of momentum WAP has built up over the last six months . . . but WAP does have its critics," said Michael Fuchs, webmaster at Netfish Technologies, in an interview. "WAP works very well on limited bandwidth and limited interfaces, but with radical upgrades in networks and better devices, the challenges for WAP are going to grow."

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