Startups To Help Mobile Operators Add WAP Tools

A Hong Kong developer of Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) software and a Singapore carrier solutions provider yesterday teamed up to make it easy for mobile phone operators to provide robust WAP services.

The deal between Hong Kong-based WAPHead International and Edge Consultants of Singapore is designed to help service providers seize on what some observers believe will be a major platform for data services in many areas of the world.

Also yesterday, startup Best-of-China.com announced it will launch an e-commerce portal in the middle of this year, accessible via WAP.

WAPHead and Edge said they will offer one-stop shopping for WAP gateways, browsers, and portal-hosting infrastructure, as well as more than 150 applications that WAPHead has adapted to WAP.

The two companies will work together to let mobile operators get WAP services to market quickly.

"They'll just plug and play the applications and services, and they can deliver them to the customer," said Francis Au, chairman and CEO of WAPHead.

WAPHead currently offers WAP applications in both English and Chinese, including ICQ-based instant messaging and a yellow-pages directory with a search engine and maps, Au said. By year's end, it will have 500 applications, including multiplayer games and unified messaging.

In April, the two companies will roll out solutions to help operators set up mobile e-commerce transactions, he added. Additionally, working with a partner, WAPHead plans by midyear to announce it is extending its WAPicq service to phones that are not WAP-enabled.

Hong Kong-based WAPHead is having development work done at Tsinghua University in Beijing and aims for a big market in China. The company is talking to one mobile operator in China and hopes to conclude an agreement within a month, Au said.

Like others in the industry, Au says estimates of less than 10 million Internet users and 50 million mobile-phone users in China are irresistible.

"The potential for doing mobile commerce in China is much higher than e-commerce through a PC," Au said. Handsets are ideal for Chinese users, he explained. "Mobile is very private, and it's very secure to do transactions such as stock trading," Au said.

At a Hong Kong event last week sponsored by mobile-phone giant Nokia, company executives and industry observers eyed a big and growing market for mobile data access over the Internet, especially in regions without an extensive infrastructure for wired communication.

Nokia executives interviewed at the event see mobile as a major platform for the internet in China. The company currently does research and development as well as manufacturing in China and plans to expand those operations, according to Nigel Litchfield, senior vice president, Asia-Pacific, of Nokia Mobile Phones.

"We're confident there is going to be continued growth in the demand for mobility," Litchfield said.

Analysts and industry participants on a panel at the Nokia event said internet access on mobile handsets is likely to explode in the next few years and cause a rapid expansion of internet usage in the developing world.

Wireless access may help Asia leapfrog the West in advanced use of the internet, said John Ure, director of the telecommunications research project at the University of Hong Kong.

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