Among the U.S. Internet population, Cap Gemini predicts that the number of individuals using cell phones for wireless data applications is set to increase from the current 3 percent to an estimated 78 percent in the next 12 months. Cap Gemini also reports that in the future 88 percent of U.S. cell phone users will utilize them to access e-mail, personal data, and business information. The worldwide picture is also one of rapid growth. Another analyst, IDC (http://www.idc.com), predicts that by 2003 there will be about 500 million mobile phone subscribers globally—far more than PC owners. Of these, a staggering 106 million will be able to receive news updates or e-mail on their phones.
So what lessons can the U.S. information providers learn from the European experience? The first is that delivering information to a mobile phone is very different from offering that data via a Web page. WAP, which is being supported by Motorola, Nokia, and Ericsson, relies heavily on its own WML (Wireless Markup Language) rather than the Web standard of HTML. This means that information has to be offered via dedicated WAP servers. WML itself has been specifically devised for small screens and one-hand navigation without a keyboard, while WAP phones don’t run normal Web browsers but microbrowsers, which have small file sizes that can accommodate the low bandwidth of wireless networks.
One early proponent of offering news via WAP is the U.K. newspaper The Guardian (http://www.newsunlimited.com). According to Geoff Inns, business development manager of Guardian Unlimited, The Guardian’s Web service, its strategy is all about offering readers access to its news wherever they are through whatever device they own. “We are giving up any attachment to a specific device or platform—it’s Guardian Ubiquitous,” he said. “We have got to maximize our opportunities to get in front of customers wherever they happen to be. More than anything, if you look at the research predictions, analysts say 270 million Europeans are going to have mobile phones at the end of 2005 and more than half of those will be WAP-enabled.”
On the WAP phone side, Guardian Unlimited has signed agreements with three European mobile phone operators—Orange, BT Cellnet, and BT Global—and is in discussions with two others—Vodafone and One to One. Inns says, “They are the ISPs of the mobile Internet world. I imagine the mobile phone manufacturers will also want to retain ownership of the customer so there will be bookmarks to portals run by the manufacturers of the phone, regardless of the network carrier. We will also be talking to people like them to see if there is anything we can add.”
Customers accessing the Internet by WAP phone are very different in profile from PC users. They don’t have a fixed profile of being at home or at work, and this difference was taken into consideration when developing The Guardian’s WAP content. “They are mobile, and the type of content provided I think is eventually going to have to reflect this so we have to think deeply about what content we can provide which reflects this for the user. Will people read 2,000-word articles on the WAP phone? I am not entirely sure they will—although they have so far,” said Inns.
“We need to develop more time- and location-specific information services like our film search, which is the first step along that way. You are out and about and you can type in the [ZIP] code … or the town and it will deliver you to the nearest cinema—and you can read a review to see if [the movie] is any good,” Inns said. Guardian Unlimited is recording 60,000 to 80,000 page hits a month on WAP but expects this number to increase as it signs on new network providers and more people acquire WAP phones.
Another possible information use for WAP phones is financial transactions, and Nokia has gone so far as to say that online share dealing will be WAP’s killer app. James Pierce, U.K. director of WAP integrators Anywhereyougo.com, says the only thing that is keeping WAP systems from making any real impact on share dealing is a shortage of WAP-enabled phones. “There is no point in anyone coming up with any significant financial services on WAP until enough employees have the phones. However, I think that will happen within a year or 18 months.”
Not everyone agrees that WAP will have such an impact. Jon Collins, a senior analyst at Bloor Research (http://www.bloorresearch.com), is unconvinced. “Everyone says that share dealing is the killer application for WAP, but what they are forgetting is that share dealing is more than simply buying and selling. Sure you can use WAP to buy and sell, but what you really need to have is detailed information on a company, and you are not going to be able to see that on the tiny screen of a WAP phone,” he said. “As far as mainstream share dealing is concerned, WAP just does not cut it.”
Collins’ view is also mirrored by the first piece of serious research that cautions against widespread adoption of WAP. Market analyst Ovum (http://www.ovum.com) says that makers and distributors of Internet-enabled mobile phones should brace themselves for a “consumer backlash” against the technology over the next few months. It states that around a million people in the U.K. have tried the devices, but most are disappointed to find they can access only select streams of text on their WAP phones, not the full range of graphics, color, and video they now associate with the Internet. Its report also criticizes the mobile phone industry for depicting a “mobile Internet Nirvana where we are able to access anything, anytime, anywhere.”
Michele MacKenzie, Ovum analyst and lead author of the report WAP Market Strategies, argues that the proponents of WAP don’t have long to rectify matters either. “WAP was never meant as the be-all and end-all of mobile Internet. And as when mobile network improvements allow, more sophisticated technologies will take center stage. But before that happens players will have to work extra hard to get user buy-in and overcome any backlash. Operators and content providers can’t afford to wait for better technology. They can act now by moving beyond the hype and playing to the strengths of WAP. They must become wireless data champions and encourage adoption by delivering really compelling and innovative applications. Only by doing that can they hope to survive to fight tomorrow’s battles.”
Where that leaves the adoption of WAP in North America is unclear. The
signs in Europe are that the first wave of information delivery via mobile
phones will be all about WAP—despite its limitations. Americans might have
the luxury of being able to skip a generation of technology and wait for
WAP—with its unimpressive monochrome, three-line text display—to be replaced
by something better. However, the sheer momentum of mobile phone adoption
suggests otherwise. For the moment WAP is all we have, and information
providers—if they want to reach all possible users—had better get used
Paul Blake is editorial director of Internet.com in the U.K. His
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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