WAP hit by consumer backlash

After all the hype, people are finally finding out what WAP is all about -- and they don't necessarily like what they see
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

So you've heard all the hype, you've seen the flashy ads promising "the Internet on your mobile", and finally you plonk down the cash to get one of those new WAP phones. But what you get is a rather chunky device displaying a few lines of text -- if it works at all -- and charging you by the minute for the privilege.

This is the picture being painted by a growing body of research, which suggests users are getting fed up with early attempts to join together Net services and mobile phones. As a new report from Ovum puts it, the WAP market is about to be hit by a "hangover".

The WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phenomenon is still going full force, as can be seen by the number of wireless products on display at this year's Internet World in London. But Michele Mackenzie, author of Ovum's "WAP Market Strategies", says network operators will now have to focus their energies on getting past consumer disillusionment over the mobile Internet.

"WAP was never meant as the 'be-all and end-all' of mobile Internet -- it will give way gracefully to more sophisticated technologies as and when mobile network improvements allow," she writes. "But before that happens, players will have to work extra hard to get user buy-in and overcome any backlash."

Part of the problem is that the mobile phone networks that exist today were never meant for accessing data: they're slow and tend to break up in the middle of a call. What's more, the typical handset isn't ideal for viewing such information, lacking serious memory and processor capacity.

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) was designed to overcome such difficulties, specifying ways data can be transferred over all sorts of wireless networks and how information should be designed to fit on a small screen. But there are limits to what WAP can achieve with current technology, a fact to which the public is becoming well aware.

Among the more serious problems are a lack of end-to-end security and -- as a recent report showed -- a high number of sites that simply don't work due to the complexity of making Web information accessible from a phone.

Earlier this month a WAP portal called AnywhereYouGo.com revealed that nearly one third of the WAP sites tested by the company did not work. The problem is that a WAP site must be recoded for practically every phone that accesses it, to account for differences in screen size, for example.

"There are 27 announced WAP phones and more than a half dozen gateways in use today," said AnywhereYouGo.com UK director James Pearce at the time. "Since each product has unique characteristics, every combination of device and gateway can cause unpredictable results and differing application performance."

Even if the sites work, users might not be pleased with what they get. Useful features such as online restaurant or transport bookings are hard to come by, and the online charges can seem steep to consumers used to cheap or free features. And on top of basic connection charges, WAP services could have a hard time making money through subscriptions or other charges. "Internet users are used to free content, and it could prove difficult to get them to pay for content unless it provides considerable added value in terms of convenience, mobility and location," writes Mackenzie.

More worrying could be the question marks cast over WAP's future. The WAP Forum, the industry group promoting the WAP standard, sees WAP lasting indefinitely, with modifications to adapt to the next-generation wireless networks that will start to arrive this year.

But this might turn out to be easier said than done. Development issues mean that WAP consumers will have to buy yet another handset to take advantage of the faster networks. And while WAP might be a de facto standard for now, some players are continuing to support non-WAP standards. Phone.com, a WAP Forum member, continues to make a browser that supports WAP Markup Language (WML) and Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML), a competing standard.

The answer, for now, may be to make WAP as attractive to consumers as possible, and let the future sort itself out, says Ovum's Mackenzie: "Operators and content providers can't afford to wait for better technology."

For full coverage see the roundup: Internet World goes mobile.

Guy Kewney knows we all want faster mobile data. And that we've all spent the last six months salivating about Nokia's promised high-speed data card and about GPRS. So, it looks like we can stop being disappointed -- Orange will finally take delivery of those GSM data cards. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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