It's not too late for WAP

The wireless Internet has a big future ahead of it, says IBM, which has announced plans to invest $1bn setting up a wireless group

The wireless Internet is about to enter a new phase, as service providers refine their offerings and consumers gain a better understanding of the technology. The result: WAP -- and other wireless technologies -- will finally deliver on their promise.

So says IBM, at least. On Tuesday the world's largest computer maker announced it will spend $1bn (about £620m) over the next few years to create a wireless consulting division. The funds will be spent in acquiring companies, hiring and retraining staff, and investing in wireless providers. In all, the new division will employ 4,000 staff.

The reason? From where IBM is standing, the wireless Internet is more than just hype -- it is the future of computing. "Now is the time when this is going to move from being an exciting technology to being something that will really be useful," says Val Rahmani, IBM vice president for communications in the Europe-Middle East region.

Trouble is, for many of the pioneers who have tried the wireless Net for themselves, it is less an exciting technology than an awkward, expensive, malfunctioning one. Despite shipping hundreds of thousands of WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phones in the last few months, usage has been low: Germany's T-Mobil last month reported less than two percent of its subscribers are active with WAP, even though twice that number own a WAP phone.

Some might suggest that WAP was launched a bit too early, before all the bugs had been ironed out, but Rahmani doesn't share this opinion.

"The first release of anything gives you a chance to look at it, have ideas and try out applications in the real world," she says. "If they had waited for it to be perfect before rolling it out, you'd have good technology, but nothing to do with it."

In this way WAP is like the early days of the Internet, Rahmani says, when many dismissed the technology because it was clunky, slow and there wasn't anything useful to do with it. Despite that initial reaction, consumer e-commerce alone is now raking in billions.

The problem is that people aren't used to the beta-test factor on their mobile phones -- they want it to be simple and straightforward on the first try. But Rahmani insists that even as it exists today, the wireless Net has its uses -- especially for those who wouldn't otherwise use the Net.

"It's simple, today: you can get things like headline, weather, sports scores. But to someone who's never had access to that [online], this opens up a huge new area for them," she says.

As for the road ahead, Rahmani sees GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) delivering greater ease-of-use with its "always on" connectivity. Then, in two or three years' time, UMTS will bring high-speed downloads, two-way video and other Star Trek-like features.

Will there be a "killer app" that brings consumers onto WAP in a big way? Probably not, Rahmani says: making the wireless Internet useful will be a process of gradually improving the networks, the handsets and the services available.

"I don't think there will be a killer app. It will be a combination of the things you want it to be. For a consumer, that could be a list of your friends' birthdays, with the option to electronically send them flowers," she says. "One thing it will be, is very personal."

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