WAP wobbles but it won't fall down... will it?

WAP just hasn't caught the public imagination, leaving opportunities for competitors, but don't count it out just yet
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

As WAP battles to live up to the hype, analysts reckon the standard will continue to struggle in the short term and argue that simpler alternatives, such as SMS, will thrive in the interim.

Complaints about WAP centre around its speed -- or lack of it, limited choice of handsets and a lack of decent applications and compatible Web content. SMS, or short message service, on the other hand has become something of a star in the wake of WAP's dismal performance.

In March 1999, one billion SMS messages were sent in Western Europe. By May 2000, the rate had increased to five billion per month, and the industry expects the ten billion per month barrier to be broken before 2001. Tim Sheedy, senior analyst at IDC, says SMS will continue to hold the fort, but only in the short term. "SMS is excellent for person-to-person communication but not so good for information delivery".

Sheedy also believes that the vendors who pushed the WAP message did so with too much fervour, inevitably disappointing consumers. "Although WAP does what it promised, it doesn't do what the vendors promised."

That has allowed competing messaging standards to compete, with some success. In Japan, the WAP-style service i-Mode has grown to seven million users since launching in February 1999, and is on course to overtake AOL as the world's largest Internet portal. Some even point to i-Mode as a superior technology to WAP because it is easier to implement and use.

Scott Goldman, chief executive of the WAP forum, does not agree.

Goldman believes the successes of SMS and i-Mode illustrates users' willingness to pay to use their mobile phones for services other than voice communications. That, he argues, proves the WAP business model is viable. "To succeed, WAP will require compelling applications, content and receivers, and we're anticipating considerable growth in all these areas in the months ahead" he said.

Goldman revealed to ZDNet UK News that 18 new WAP enabled handsets will be launched in Britain during the next 90 days and argues that the developer community is working hard to guarantee the standard's success. "There are over 170,000 registered WAP software developers, compared to the 70,000 people developing applications for the Palm operating system, which shows the phenomenal potential of WAP," he said.

Mike Holland, European managing director of email firm BulletIN.net, agrees that WAP is safe in the long term, although the technology is far from perfect. "At the moment, the complexity and infrastructure of WAP makes it painful," he stated, citing the 10p/min cost of WAP-based browsing as a further obstacle.

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