Wap-enabled phones have promised a lot: if the advertising is to be believed, Wap users can surf the web and connect to a multitude of different web-based offerings.
But although reality is often somewhat different to the hype, vendors have now come up with a new selling point - that of mobile ecommerce services, or m-commerce for short.
The Wap Forum, which represents the major suppliers of Wap phones and services, paints a picture of what will be possible: "Imagine stepping out of an office building to go to the airport. Using your Wap-enabled wireless device, you check the traffic congestion and the train timetable and then purchase a train ticket online instead of driving."
"On the way to the airport, you select your aisle seat, check in for the flight reserving a special meal, and then unpack your raincoat after looking up the weather conditions at your destination."
Sounds great. But the following is what is actually available from BT Cellnet's Genie Wap portal, which was launched in January. "Currently, it is not possible to check traffic congestion," said a Genie spokesman. "You can check train times, but no, you can't buy train tickets, although I don't think that's far away. You can buy an airline ticket via one of our partners such as Lastminute.com or Thomas Cook, but you can't check in, reserve a seat or order a meal."
And the weather? "There is weather news. But it's UK only," he explained.
Mviva, the mobile portal that was jointly launched by America Online (AOL) and Carphone Warehouse on 20 July, offers a somewhat more comprehensive service, however. It has a link to CNN's weather service providing worldwide information, and you can book airline tickets via ebookers or Lastminute.
Some traffic congestion information is provided, but it is "limited" in that it covers only major motorways, admitted an Mviva spokeswoman. "It is being developed," she added.
But you can't use Mviva to book a train ticket or even look up train times, although timetables will be available by the end of August, and you can't check in for a flight or reserve a meal.
This kind of gap between hype and reality is beginning to alarm some in the industry. They are worried that once the first, enthusiastic Wap buyers realise the limited nature of existing services - which do not provide full access to the internet, but only to specially-developed, text-only web pages - there could be a backlash.
And such a negative response could delay any further development of new Wap applications such as m-commerce services.
Stephen Wright, marketing manager at telecoms distributor Rocom, explained that sales of Wap handsets are relatively slow following an initial purchasing boom by early adopters. "I suspect people are either not convinced by the services that are available or are confused by the Wap concept," he said.
Others remain confident that, while existing Wap services are pretty thin on the ground, it will not seriously harm future market growth. "If you don't have a Wap phone today, you're probably not missing much," admitted Mike Herman, chairman of the Global Mobile Commerce Forum.
"But I firmly believe there is an absolutely huge market here," he added. "It may not be this year, it may not even be next year; but trading over portable devices, with the same functionality as over fixed devices, will develop."
And the market forecasters agree. Analyst Frost & Sullivan reckons that worldwide revenues generated by m-commerce were close to $2.98bn last year and will be worth $64bn by 2005. Forrester Research puts the figure even higher: it thinks the worldwide m-commerce market will reach $200bn by 2005.
Merrill Lynch, on the other hand, estimates that the value of the European mobile portal market will hit £14bn by 2005 and £63bn by 2010.
These kinds of figures are seriously tempting for internet content providers and mobile network operators, both of which are putting a lot of investment into Wap services. In particular, the UK's four existing mobile phone network operators are racing to hook users into their own offerings before the market really opens up.
Cellnet was the first to jump on the bandwagon with Genie, but both Orange and Vodafone now have mobile portals and have signed deals with a number of content providers. Although no commercial Wap services are available from One2One, the company is currently advertising for developers to work on building up its mobile internet services and claims to be investing £2m per day to ensure a "winning position" in the m-commerce space.
Other recently launched independent mobile portals include iTouch, which is run by Independent News & Media, and the previously mentioned Mviva portal from Carphone Warehouse and AOL.
The main services currently available from such portals are fairly standard fare: email, entertainment listings, sports, travel, news and weather information, share prices and some shopping and financial services. But as yet, there are far fewer true m-commerce applications, which offer, among other things, the ability to buy and sell online.
One issue that needs to be addressed before m-commerce can take off,however, is security, something in which Herman is involved in a commercial capacity as vice president of security firm Thyron. The company has developed a concept called the YES.wallet to help speed up transactions undertaken using Wap devices.
But there are also technical limitations with both the front-end devices that enable users to access mobile online services and the back-end systems. There are obvious problems, for example, trying to carry out complex transactions using the small screen of a mobile phone or even a personal digital assistant (PDA).
Richard Schwartz is senior vice president of technology at software company Vignette, which is working with a number of content providers to adapt their ecommerce applications for the mobile market.
He believes that mobile users are, by definition, usually doing something else when they are using their phone and concentrate on it for no more than about 10 seconds. This compares with the average hour and a half browsing time of someone using a desktop machine.
"The challenge is to develop applications that present themselves, require an absolute minimal level of keystrokes and scrolling, and return the awaited result or complete the transaction," said Schwartz, adding that customers needed a smarter set of device-savvy ebusiness applications.
Sluggish data transfer rates over existing networks are also slowing up the delivery of data to Wap handsets. As a result, even the high street dealers, keen to shift inventory, emphasise that, although the launch of general packet radio services later this year will improve current speeds, the really big breakthrough will come with the advent of the third-generation mobile network in two or three years' time.
According to dealer DX, when this arrives "you will be able to access all sorts of goodies from your phone such as video and TV, and surf the internet just like from your PC".
At the back end of the system too, content providers are still having problems converting internet information from HTML into WML, although standardising Wap formats has provided a substantial boost to the mobile online services market.
WML was developed to provide customers with an easy means of navigation without needing to use a full keyboard and it can be used to adapt screen displays for a range of mobile devices, from the smallest of two-line text displays to full graphic screens on larger PDAs.
But Schwartz believes that using mobile devices to access online content will only really take off when the technology is better adapted to deal with these kinds of limitations. He argues that one way this will happen is through the delivery of far more personalised services.
Online auctions, for example could benefit from this approach. Users could bid for items while surfing from their desktop PC, but might then receive notification via a mobile device that they had been outbidded. They would then be automatically reconnected to the auction site to make a higher bid if they so desired.
But these kinds of personalised services are some way off. A great deal more investment on the part of infrastructure suppliers, handset manufacturers and application providers is required if they are to realise the full potential of m-commerce services.
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