Are the bad times over for WAP?

WAP Forum chief Goldman is optimistic but others point to threat from Japan

Scott Goldman, chief executive of the WAP Forum, claimed Thursday that the next version of the wireless application protocol will be powerful enough to survive the challenge from Japanese rival i-mode.

WAP 2.0 is scheduled to ship this summer and, speaking at m-commerce World in London, Goldman explained that it would boast a host of new features -- giving wireless users an experience closer to that enjoyed by subscribers of NTT DoCoMo's popular i-mode service. It will be based on XHTML (Extended Hypertext Markup Languge) -- making it easier for developers to create applications that run on multiple devices -- as opposed to WML (Wireless Markup Language). It will support colour graphics, animation and large file downloads, as well as location-based services and data synchronisation.

The ability to download sizeable files will appeal to fans of digital music. "People came to us and said, 'Hey, people are downloading lots of MP3 files to their desktop PCs and we think they'll want to do it to their mobile devices,' so we included it in WAP 2.0," Goldman explained. Goldman claimed that the best was yet to come for WAP. "WAP is commercial today, but it is built for tomorrow," he declared.

Since its launch, WAP has been accused of failing to meet user expectations, which were inflated by marketing campaigns claiming that the experience of surfing the Net from a mobile would be similar to browsing on a PC.

In contrast, Japanese rival i-mode, which is often perceived as posing a threat to WAP in Europe, has almost 16 million subscribers -- with the average high school child paying $78 each month for the service. NTT DoCoMo, the company behind i-mode, recently opened offices in Europe.

Goldman insisted that WAP and i-mode could co-exist. "We're great admirers of i-mode's, and we see its success as proof of WAP's future success", he said. He also claimed that i-mode's success was due to the excellent content it made available rather than superior technology.

Another speaker at the m-commerce conference, former mobile solutions architect at SecureTrading Andy Wigley, is more critical of network operators in the UK. "If content is king, then i-mode made a lot of Japanese content sites into little princes. DoCoMo was a success because it gave access to a lot of useful services, while in this country WAP operators attempted to create walled gardens, and are guilty of neglecting independent content providers," he said.

Wigley also points out that NTT DoCoMo was investing in mobile firms in Europe in preparation for UMTS networks. Last month, the Japanese firm teamed up with Dutch group KPN Telecom and Telecom Italia Mobile to offer Internet services over mobile phones across Europe. If DoCoMo was to launch i-mode in Europe, it would be a direct competitor with WAP phones.

However, because of the amount of money invested in WAP by mobile phone companies, most industry experts believ they cannot allow the protocol to fail.

UMTS, also known as 3G (third generation), networks will mean much faster data connection rates than are possible with today's GSM networks. This could mean that mobile devices would be capable of advanced services such as video streaming, and would solve one problem that WAP is frequently accused of -- that it is too slow.

Wigley believes another threat to WAP could come from handheld computer makers such as Palm and Handspring. "Palm recently launched wireless modems, and Microsoft's "Stinger" phone will use a mobile Explorer micro-browser that will support HTML and WML." These technologies would give users another way to access Internet content on their mobile or personal digital assistant (PDA).

Stinger is Microsoft's specification for small smartphones that will combine the functionality of a PDA and a mobile phone. The first Stinger-based gadgets are expected to ship by the end of 2001.

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