FRAMINGHAM (07/17/2000) - The prospect is tantalizing. Imagine being able to access the Internet in much the same way that you do now--but from your cell phone. And not just for checking your e-mail while on the move, but doing serious browser-based stuff too: buying a book or CD, booking a flight, trading stock or just finding the location of the nearest Chinese restaurant or ATM. Or accessing your company's enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to check on the status of an order, expedite a shipment or approve a stack of purchase requisitions. Indeed, within the constraints of what can be displayed on a pocket-size screen, imagine being able to do anything that you currently do at the desktop--and some things that you can't, such as pointing your phone at a Coke machine to pay for a drink.
Somehow, revolution isn't the right word. But the mobile Internet is taking shape, and observers are predicting a paradigm shift greater than arrival of the personal computer. And a key part of it will likely be WAP, the "open standard" wireless application protocol that brings Internet connectivity to the cell phone. Although according to a joke making the rounds earlier this year in Europe, where the standard first took off, WAP means something entirely different. WAP, ran the gag, really stands for "Where Are the Phones?"--a reference to the fact that for almost a year the hype about WAP outstripped manufacturers' ability to bring devices to market.
Hence the broad smile on the face of Kent Thexton in early March this year.
Thexton is managing director of British Telecommunications PLC's (BT) Global Mobile Internet, a division of BT's mobile Internet company, BT Cellnet, and he's got the phones--or at least an awful lot of them.
BT's share price shot up 12 percent on March 9, when it revealed that--having launched Britain's first commercial WAP service back in January--it had secured thousands of oh-so-scarce WAP phones from manufacturers such as Alcatel and Siemens. Twelve percent may not sound very much compared with Nasdaq's bungeelike gyrations, but for a staid British telco headquartered a stone's throw from London's St. Paul's Cathedral, it was certainly unusual--and indicative of the momentum gathering behind WAP.
For as little as 49.99 (around US$74 at current exchange rates), BT's stockpile of WAP phones would be offered to consumers and small-business users as soon as early April. "The mobile Internet is the future," says Thexton, pointing to the fact that there are already some 750,000 mobile Internet users. "America is now the only market in the world where Internet penetration is higher than mobile phone penetration. By 2003, more people will be able to access the Internet from mobile devices than from desktop PCs."
WAP'S PROMISE And WAP is how the industry hopes that they will do this. Simply put, WAP is an open, global standard that brings Internet connectivity to the mobile device--meaning to the cell phone initially, but soon to pagers and personal digital assistants, and ultimately to other portable and intelligent devices. Some 450 major telecommunications, software and hardware companies have signed up to the standard by joining the industry association promoting it, collectively representing over 95 percent of the global handset market, as well as carriers with more than 200 million subscribers.
Which is where WAP's strength lies: it's an open (and free) standard--any manufacturer can produce WAP-enabled devices, and any Internet site can output WAP-readable webpages (simply download the WAP technical specifications at www.wapforum.com). If pages already exist in HTML, converting to WAP is little more complicated than stripping out slow-to-load graphics and reformatting the page to make it legible on the smaller screen of the typical mobile device. The resulting code is called WML (wireless markup language).
In Europe, that's already a reality: All these things can be achieved now, and new WAP services are springing up by the day. Consequently, using a WAP-enabled phone, it is perfectly possible to buy books or CDs from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.de--respectively the Seattle-based online retailer's U.K. and German subsidiaries--but not, as yet, from parent company Amazon.com. (Though the company lets some U.S. cell phone users shop using an alternative called handheld device markup language, or HDML.) Europe, which has adopted the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) as its standard for mobile digital phones, has hundreds of commercial WAP services in existence, offering everything from travel bargains and Yellow Pages to the chance to bid on QXL.com, Europe's equivalent to eBay.
In the United States, where no one wireless standard exists, talk of such services is still limited: vendors like AT&T Wireless and the makers of the Palm VII handheld computer are positioning themselves to support the technology by offering WAP-ready phones and (in Palm Inc.'s case) licensing Phone.com's WAP-compatible browser. In Japan, NTT Mobile Communications Network's (NTT DoCoMo) i-mode, based on proprietary technology, illustrates the global appeal of a wireless Internet: The service created a sensation, attracting more than 6 million users in its first 15 months. Looking ahead, observers like market researcher IDC project more than 1.3 billion wireless Internet users will have WAP-capable devices in their hands by 2004.
All of which explains why Europe's head start with WAP is being watched so closely by Americans. Hundreds of millions of subscribers for whom their cell phone is--or will be--either a far more convenient way to access the Internet, or indeed the only way for them to access the Internet, have made the Continent a laboratory for the United States's own WAP endeavors. Even Microsoft has adapted. Robert O' Hara, manager of Microsoft's Wireless Telephony Group (Europe), says the company hasn't followed its usual practice when making a number of strategic WAP acquisitions in the last 12 months. "Most of the time when we buy a small company, we pick everybody up and move them to Redmond," he says. Instead, with the acquisitions of Sweden's Sendit AB and Cambridge, England-based STNC in July 1999, Microsoft has left the people where they were.
"Europe is where it's happening," says O'Hara, who is in the process of moving his family to Cambridge.
Ultimately, U.S. players will find ways to circumvent the problem of different telephony standards, believes Scott Goldman, CEO of WAP Forum Ltd., the WAP industry association based in Mountain View, Calif. The pieces are already moving into place.
GSM carrier VoiceStream Wireless has been making a lot of acquisitions in recent months, says Goldman, observing that there's pretty much a national footprint now--and where there isn't, there's usually a roaming arrangement supporting users who may look to access WAP-enabled applications. "Only Dallas and Chicago don't yet have a GSM service," though both cities have companies working on it, he says. Other carriers will swing into line as WAP gathers momentum. "The closest [thing to WAP] is Sprint's Wireless Web, which is a pre-WAP service," says Goldman. "However, Sprint is a member of the WAP Forum and is committed to convergence." The bottom line is that the United States will see some sort of commercial WAP service by the fall.
And the nature of that service will likely be crucial to the success of WAP in the American market, if its arrival isn't bogged down by the "so what?" factor.
As Goldman observes, "Americans are much closer to having news, sports, stock prices and banking very much closer to them--electronically speaking--than are Europeans, thanks to America's very much higher level of computer and Internet penetration. In Europe, that's not the case, and WAP devices and services will be offering individuals capabilities and services that they don't currently possess."
BUSINESS APPS STILL IN EARLY STAGE Corporate applications for WAP technology, meanwhile, have tended to follow mobile workers such as truck drivers, field service people and traveling salespeople, says Cindy Dahm, director of Europe marketing for Phone.com. It was Phone.com, then called Unwired Planet, that in 1995 first designed the communications protocols that formed the basis of WAP.
With applications taking advantage of the technology, Dahm says, "You can respond to customers' needs much more quickly, even while you're in their office." The real problem, she adds, is that outside these narrow application areas businesses haven't really begun to think about how they could, or should, use a device "that sits in your pocket and is on all the time, even when your laptop is switched off and in your briefcase."
"There's a visualization problem," agrees Mike Short, chair of the London-based Mobile Data Association. "People tend to think of mobile phones as having tiny screens and a small typeface. They're going to get bigger, without a doubt.
Think of them as Palm Pilot-size devices, with Palm Pilot-size screens." And the visualization failure also extends, he adds, to understanding quite what a revolution it will be to have a corporate intranet that is everywhere--and accessible without a costly laptop.
Clearly, businesspeople on the move will be first to use their WAP devices to buy their own airline tickets and reserve their own hotels, Short says. And the first uses of WAP within the corporate world are likely to be exactly this kind of thing: an application that has a consumer feel to it but happens to be deployed in a corporate environment. Others, such as Justin Chamberlain, head of corporate ventures at the London-based national headquarters of cell phone manufacturer Ericsson, highlight the synergies possible when WAP devices are also equipped with Bluetooth, the open standard short-range radio technology that is due to be incorporated in devices in the coming months.
There are no technical barriers, he points out, to using WAP devices to capture micropayments--car parking fees, vending machines and so forth. Still others, such as Nokia's Hamilton, see the potential of building bar-code readers into WAP devices. "You're standing in Barnes & Noble looking at a book, and you [use your] wand--or just type, if the phone doesn't have a bar-code reader--the bar-code number into the phone, which then tells you how much it's selling for at Amazon," she says. Do you order it from Amazon while standing in Barnes & Noble? Or show the register clerk the price you could get at Amazon and invite them to follow suit?
And Madison Avenue is starting to think about advertisements too: Although cell phones by their very nature provide some indication of where the phone is physically located, devices equipped with global satellite positioning (GPS) technology will be able to fix their position to within a few feet. And whereas advertisers can only identify a particular PC used to access the Web (and not the actual user), cell phones are registered to a real person, says Owen Davis, managing director and founder of New York City-based Thinking Media, a service that provides wireless tools for businesses. Consequently, they can--groan--zap you an ad for the nearest restaurant or point to the specials at Joe's Diner.
"There are huge privacy issues [with WAP]," says Davis. "Permission-based marketing is going to be extremely important in the wireless data advertising space--my guess is that most ads will be sent only to those who explicitly agree to receive them."
But to begin with, most businesses' introduction to WAP will come from enterprise software vendors that incorporate WAP functionality into their products. "Essentially, any corporate activity with workflow processes and approvals can be sent to a wireless device just as easily as a fixed-point desktop," says Mike Fransden, vice president and general manager of supply chain applications at PeopleSoft in Pleasanton, Calif. PeopleSoft developers have been working on WAP since last fall, he adds, and early applications include order status checking, pricing and availability, requisition approvals, and expense management logging. "It's been amazing how quickly we were able to make the prototypes work," he adds. "The business logic is the same: The client personal digital assistant or cell phone simply needs a WAP display, not an HTML display."
A similar story emerges at SAP. "We're WAP-enabling the mySAP.com workplace so that it becomes a mobile workplace," says Martin Hofmann, head of the Mobile Workplace group of the Internet Business Framework department of SAP in Walldorf, Germany. Since the mySAP.com workplace covers all functions of every SAP product, he continues, employees will be able to do everything from approving vacations and purchase requisitions to checking on the status of an order, all from their WAP device. "Even some small reports--but only those that make sense on such small devices," he enthuses. "If it makes sense to put it on a mobile device, we'll put it there. If it doesn't, we won't."
Even so, this amounts to little more than mapping today's functionality onto a WAP-enabled world. What of wholly new functionality? It turns out that some interesting glimmers are emerging. At CGU, one of the United Kingdom's largest insurance companies, a WAP development effort is under way to not just enable mobile workers, such as claims adjusters to keep in touch with the office more readily, but to communicate with outside contractors as well.
"One of the biggest elements of our purchase spend is property repair on behalf of our insurance customers--around a half billion pounds [$740 million] each year," says Alf Noto, director of supply chain and purchasing at CGU's London headquarters. And it's one of the biggest headaches too. The problem: builders, plumbers, glaziers and the like aren't sitting at home by the phone waiting for CGU to call. But they do carry cell phones--and WAP offers a way of quickly communicating with repairers, finding out if they're available and scheduling them to do the job.
Linked to a WAP-based transaction website, WAP also offers a way for repairers to efficiently communicate the fact that they've carried out the repair, invoice CGU and thus trigger a bank transfer payment. "We're dealing with 20,000 suppliers," says Noto. "At times it feels like everybody with a toolbox in the entire country sends us an invoice at some point or other."
Other experts see WAP applications reaching further, to link business transaction systems not just to workers but to other machines as well. "I can envision countless 'smart' devices that interact with a central application system--vending machines, storage tanks, material handling equipment, vehicles and so on," says Jim Shepherd, senior vice president of client research at Boston-based AMR Research. "These would not just be data collection points but--for instance--a storage tank that could send status information, receive schedule updates, calculate replenishment requirements, and transact material receipts and issues."
It's an exciting prospect, and somehow more believable than envisioning corporate America getting fired up over authorizing vacation requests and purchasing requisitions online. Yet there's a catch. And that, says Simon Buckingham, managing director of Newbury, England-based WAP consultancy Mobile Lifestreams, "is that the WAP standard was released in stages, and the handsets on sale today support only WAP 1.1." So? Push applications, says Buckingham, where the WAP device isn't the one initiating the call, are covered by WAP 1.2, which should have been finalized in mid-1999 but ran late. The most recent version of the protocol also includes stronger security features. Significant numbers of WAP 1.2-enabled phones won't be on the market until mid-2001, he estimates.
Meanwhile, developers and consumers will wait to see if WAP catches on--but judging its success on what Buckingham regards as a flawed, suboptimal version of WAP that should never have been released.
With every day that passes without WAP 1.2 devices on the market, the risk increases. But this time, the WAP joke is on the industry, not the patient consumer--and could yet backfire. Hey guys, where are the phones?
How are you using wireless technology? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Malcolm Wheatley can be reached at email@example.com.
To begin with, most business introduction to WAP will come from enterprise software vendors that incorporate WAP functionality into their products.
To learn more about WAP
The WAP Forum www.wapforum.org
GSM Association www.gsmworld.com
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) www.w3.org Mobile Lifestreams www.mobilelifestreams.com A CONTINENT APART In Europe, technology standards and consumer-friendlyservices gave WAP a head start When it comes to the wireless application protocol (WAP), "the U.S. is one to two years behind Europe," says Monica Hamilton, the Irving, Texas-based director of the global strategic partnership program at Nokia Internet Communications. Three factors explain Europe's wireless revolution and the widespread unveiling of WAP-compatible applications.
1. Adoption of a continentwide mobile digital telephony standard. The U.S. telecommunications market sports three different digital standards, plus one still widely used analog standard--and carriers, Hamilton says, have been reluctant to change. "AT&T has one proprietary solution, Sprint another--and there's a fear of loss of control and revenue," she says. Europe, meanwhile, has rallied around one: GSM, the Global System for Mobile Communication (formally, the Groupe Special Mobile, after the European bureaucrats who created it in 1987).
Resulting economies of scale lowered handset prices and connectivity costs. So while only one in five European households owns a PC, levels of cell phone penetration are higher--46 percent in the United Kingdom, more than 60 percent in Finland--and rising. The number of cell phone subscribers topped 140 million in 1999, up from 93 million the previous year.
2. Flexible pricing and payment models for wireless services encourage Europeans to sign up. It costs nothing to receive a call on a mobile telephone--that's taken care of by the subscription. Outgoing calls cost, sure, but incoming calls are charged to the person making the call. Now roll in flexible payment options: The usage of prepaid cards is growing, with replacement cards available at most newsstands and gas stations. It's a pricing structure made for kids--parents routinely buy their teenage children cell phones as an easy way of both keeping tabs on them and providing emergency backup at low cost.
3. European cell phone users have latched on to the capabilities of digital technology. Besides the improved clarity of digital calls, compared with crackly analog connections, Europeans have come to appreciate other features.
Short message service (SMS) technology allows users to send brief, 160-character "pager-like" text messages to each other, a facility hugely popular with youngsters. In March, German mobile subscribers exchanged over a billion SMS messages, while U.K. users sent and received 360 million, according to Mark Smith, communications director for the GSM Association in Dublin, Ireland. The service travels: With SMS, you can send text messages from a cell phone or PC to other cell phone users connected by more than 355 operators in 132 countries. -M. Wheatley A FAMILIAR WEB LANGUAGE--AND A RIVAL FOR WAP As wireless products and services evolve, the wireless application protocol (WAP) is unlikely to be the only standard technology to view websites from a mobile device. Hypertext markup language (HTML), the lingua franca of websites designed for PC browsers, is far from dead in the water. Many vendors, in fact, continue to assume there will be a dual-browser world where they must support WAP and HTML--at least until it's clear how WAP's long-term prospects shape up.
Among those pursuing this path are Microsoft, with its Mobile Explorer platform for cell phones and other devices, and SAP, which has built a product called Internet Transaction Server to bring information from enterprise resource planning systems to mobile users. British telco BT is actively working with Microsoft to develop a mobile HTML browser. And phone manufacturers are building handsets that contain both WAP and HTML browsers.
Why? Market share is an important consideration: Despite being clunky in the mobile world, HTML has a head start, and WAP's advantages may not be enough to persuade businesses to effectively publish all their webpages twice--once in HTML and again in WAP. With corporate applications, this is an important consideration, says Kent Thexton, managing director of BT's global mobile Internet business: Rewriting corporate intranets for WAP can be avoided if HTML devices can somehow do the job, even if it means a user must scroll around to see a complete screen.
Consider this thought experiment. Take a computer-type device--a small laptop or a larger Palm handheld, for example--and build telephony capability into it.
Make it suitable for voice as well as data with a small microphone and speaker, just like today's multimedia laptops. The result? You've just built a device that has a usable screen for data and HTML viewing as well as a phone you can use to call the office. It isn't a laptop as we know it; it isn't a phone as we know it--but it could be the future, and it would work on HTML just as well as WAP.