Hans Snook, the group chief executive of telecoms giant Orange, recently proclaimed that the mobile phone would become a "remote control for life service". At the time, Snook was launching a large array of Wap-based services.
Analysts are now saying that the mobile market, which covers applications, internet access, hardware and services, is likely to change the way in which we work and play - and sooner rather than later.
According to analyst Forrester Research, 54 million Europeans will regularly access the web via their mobile phones by 2007. Ovum Research claims that, in the UK alone, the number of active PDA users will rise from this year's mere 9,000 to more than 40,000 by 2006. IDC predicts that every phone will be internet-enabled by 2001, and that there will be one billion mobile customers by 2003.
So it would appear that these are exciting times for the sector, complex though it is. New technologies are on the verge of being rolled out, different applications and services are being announced almost daily, and the number of acquisitions and partnerships is gaining pace as all manner of vendors attempt to get in on the action.
But the market is also beset with technological contradictions and confusion among users. Major manufacturers, such as Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, pushed out Wap-enabled PDAs and phones last year, positioning the technology as the great hope for the mobile web-surfing generation.
The only problem was that the Wap message promised more than it could deliver. Vendors in general, and BT Cellnet in particular, said that no matter what mobile device you were using, whether a phone or a PDA, if it was Wap-enabled, you could access the net whenever you wanted and from wherever you happened to be.
But Wap-enabled phones only allow customers to access Wap-enabled sites, and critics claim that the technology is slow and clumsy to handle.
Security fears have cast doubts over how safe Wap is to use for activities such as banking and shopping. And to make matters worse, there has even been a shortage of handsets from some manufacturers.
Both BT Cellnet and Orange claim phenomenal growth in Wap-enabled phone sales, although it is unclear whether the devices are being used for internet access, for making voice calls or for sending and receiving text-based messages.
According to Ovum, Wap technology may find itself hoofed out of the running by 2003 as next-generation technologies take over.
The most obvious contender for supremacy in the mobile internet space is Japanese wireless web technology iMode. Based on a cut-down version of HTML, this technology makes it easier to convert internet content from websites before presenting it in a mobile phone format.
It has the advantage of using packet switching rather than the circuit-switched technology on which Wap is based. Packet networks can deliver data faster, and iMode is chargeable by the packet, not by the minute, meaning that users only pay for the amount of data they download rather than how long they stay connected to a network.
Other technological rivals, including GSM-based services such as 2.5G (two-and-a-half generation), are also likely to emerge soon, following the roll-out of General Packet Radio Systems. Analyst firm Future Horizons predicts that this, if nothing else, will "kick-start growth in the mobile data market".
Such technology will be followed by Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution (Edge), which will enable data to pass over wireless networks at rates of up to 384Kbits/sec.
3G services, or the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, are expected to emerge next, and some observers have earmarked 2003 as the date to look out for.
But Henry Harrison, senior consultant at Schema, sounded a note of warning. "The variety of formats and handsets is not a problem - we can have all of them. But the platforms will have to be glued together," he said.
However, useful applications will still be the key to whether the mobile internet market really takes off. Some existing services, such as weather and news broadcasts, are somewhat trivial and are likely to have a short shelflife. Killer applications, according to Ovum, "should play to the strengths of mobile devices, which are convenience, location and personalisation".
Aiming to aid professionals
But Harrison believes the breakthrough will come when mobile services can be used to make professional life easier. "Businesses will be looking for services which enable them to support their sales teams and allow employees to access email and important company data. They need to be in contact with the customer and information systems at the same time, not one or the other," he said.
Samsung is working with Microsoft to enable its applications to run on mobile phones. The offerings, which will be based on Windows CE 3.0 and Microsoft's Mobile Explorer browser, are expected to hit the market in two waves.
The first will be the so-called feature phones that are scheduled to appear by the second half of this year. The second is expected to enable users to view existing HTML web pages, and will be based on a customised release of CE 3.0. No time scales are yet available for the launch of these products.
Microsoft hopes that this will be the killer application for mobile phones, claiming that users will only need one email address, which will be accessible from every device they own. At the moment, users often need several email addresses.
Although, over time, many other vendors will claim to have produced their own killer applications for the mobile internet space, it would be refreshing if, unlike the Wap boys, the apps boys could leave the hype behind and give it to us straight for once.
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