The Ovum View: Avoiding the WAP trap

Say you learnt something before GPRS...

Say you learnt something before GPRS...

As Oscar Wilde almost said: To stuff up the launch of one wireless data service is unfortunate; to stuff up two begins to look a bit like carelessness. Ovum's Jeremy Green is worried that the wireless industry is going to drive GPRS down the same rocky road to ruin along which it ran WAP. To do a WAP with GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) would be a shame, to put it mildly. GPRS, as the first connectionless, packet-oriented service to be offered within the GSM platform holds out the possibility of a whole new family of data services, with different kinds of service capabilities and perhaps more important, new kinds of charging models. It's therefore likely to be the testing ground for the applications which the industry needs to make a success of its investment in 3G. Wireless operators know that revenues from new kinds of services - which more or less have to be data services - will be the only way to pay for the huge outlays they will be making for 3G infrastructure, but they don't yet have much experience with providing these services. They haven't yet worked out what kinds of charging models are going to work, what kinds of partners they are going to need, or what kinds of relationship they are going to have with them. GPRS offers an opportunity to answer these questions before 3G is launched, so that the latter can start earning its keep more or less as soon as it is launched. So if it's so important, how could anyone let it go bad? The operators have avoided some of the pitfalls into which they pushed WAP. In contrast to the wave of overblown rhetoric unrelated to the actual capabilities of the service, there has been relatively little hype about GPRS. In fact, there has been little marketing at all. In part this may be because the operators have learned from their earlier mistake, but it also seems to reflect the fact that they don't have a very clear idea what GPRS is really for. The prices for the service, for example, are all over the place. GPRS tariffs appear to have been made up without any attempt at consistency at all. Operators differ according to both the principles and the absolute levels at which they charge. Prices for data downloads can vary between operators by a factor of ten or more. (How anyone is ever going to make sense of this when international GPRS roaming becomes available is completely beyond me.) There are also mixed messages about the benefits, sometimes emphasising the increased data speeds that GPRS supports, and sometimes the fact that it is connectionless - 'always on'. The reasons behind this particular ambiguity aren't too hard to fathom. The data speeds initially promised for GPRS have turned out to be slideware - although in principle it can support throughput rates above 100Kbps, in practice, but currently the actual throughput rates are closer to 10 or 20Kbps, not much above what is available with the old circuit switched bearers available within GSM. The fact that GPRS is 'always on' therefore becomes more important, but it's harder to explain, at least to consumer users. As far as they are concerned a device is on when you switch it on, and as for packet based charging, well 'what's a packet?' Of course business customers are much more clued up as to the benefits of volume-based charging. It's what they have been demanding from the operators for a long time, so that they can wirelessly enable both blue- and white-collar business applications. And early on, the operators intended to target them as the first customers for GPRS. Somewhere along the way, though, they appear to have become less sure that this is a good idea. Perhaps this was because they weren't sure that they could offer the kinds of guaranteed service quality that is needed to support corporate customers, or perhaps it was because they reasoned enterprise applications developers hadn't had the access to development tools for long enough to fill the GPRS pipes. Either way, they have increasingly positioned GPRS as a consumer-oriented service, and specifically as a complement to consumer-oriented WAP services. Some of GPRS' growing pains just go with the territory. The Europe-centred GSM world is explicitly a multi-polar, multi-vendor, standards-driven sort of place. That means any new development takes a long time, and everything feels late by the time it actually arrives. GPRS is suffering from this now, as many customers - especially business users - are already caught up in the wave of expectation about 3G and feel that GPRS is about to become obsolete. It's hard to convince them otherwise, particularly when GPRS is explicitly branded as a 2.5G, which inevitably sounds like a staging post on the route to somewhere better. So is the damage already done, or does GPRS have some time left to get into its stride? Happily, it does. Although the service has been available in the network for some time, the handset vendors have been slower to deliver. The earliest handsets have inevitably left much to be desired. And with no handset yet in the market from Nokia, the dominant vendor, the jury can't yet deliver a verdict on GPRS. A good handset with a sparkling user interface could make all the difference. Similarly, applications developers have yet to deliver any compelling applications and content - but that doesn't mean that they can't. The twin examples of i-mode and SMS show what it is possible to do with even a limited bearer service given an attractive business model and good support from the user device. And there is every reason to expect users will eventually abandon their 'wait for something better' attitude to GPRS - if only because much mobile coverage and service will be still be delivered over 2G networks long after the launch of 3G. GPRS will probably come right over the next year. After all, nobody's careless enough to mess it up twice. Are they?