'Mobile Web' launches in US - without WAP

Verizon offers 25 million customers WAP-free mobile Internet and puts the struggling standard in danger

America's largest wireless provider Verizon Wireless on Monday launched its own mobile Internet package in the US -- but it is pushing a proprietary standard incompatible with WAP.

WAP -- Wireless Application Protocol -- has become synonymous in Europe with the wireless Internet, but has failed to penetrate into Japan or the US. Japan's DoCoMo has its own competing system, i-Mode, accessed daily by millions of mobile phone users.

Verizon's system, "Mobile Web", is based on HDML, or Handheld Device Markup Language. WAP sites must be encoded in WML, or Wireless Markup Language. HDML is a proprietary standard, meaning that service providers are tied to using hardware and software controlled by a particular company; by contrast, anyone can create hardware or software compliant with WAP standards.

The service, which in other respects is similar to WAP services offered in the UK, comes bundled with 32 HDML-based content providers as well as a personalised portal with the catchy name "MyVZW". It costs $6.95 a month (about £4) in addition to per-minute charges. It is available in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Boston immediately, with coverage of most other US urban locations coming next week.

The move is important for the US wireless market, which has been hampered by the size of the areas to be covered and the existence of disparate standards. Besides brand-name HDML sites such as E*Trade, ESPN, Expedia and CitySearch, Verizon is hoping such services as mobile email will take off. Text messaging such as is common in the UK is nearly unheard of on the other side of the pond.

"The introduction of Mobile Web marks a new era in the convergence of wireless and the Internet," said Denny Strigl, president and chief executive for Verizon Wireless, in a statement. "This new service gives users the most convenient way to wirelessly access the content they want from the Internet. At the same time, Mobile Web lays the groundwork for the next evolution of wireless Internet applications."

But HDML may not bode well for WAP say analysts. The vision of the WAP Forum, the industry consortium that supports the WAP standard, is to have a single global system that makes it easy to create mobile Internet content. HDML's entry may put that vision in danger.

The consumer would be the one to lose out in a world of competing mobile Internet standards, according to Graham Opie, director of analysis firm Vanson Bourne. "Standards are a good thing, you need that," he said.

But the effect may be limited, since more advanced network services such as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) will eventually make WAP obsolete, he said: "WAP has some very good potential applications, but it's not going to provide a rich user experience, necessarily, for the consumer user."

Verizon, with 25 million wireless voice and data customers, was formed three months ago from the merger of the US wireless businesses of Bell Atlantic, GTE and Vodafone AirTouch (quote: VOD).

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