With large service providers now supporting data services over mobile devices, businesses are now starting to integrate mobile devices into their ecommerce architecture. These new services, aimed at roaming users and consumers, have been dubbed m-commerce by analysts.
According to Forrester Research, 90 per of large media enterprises, retailers and banks in Europe are developing online services for mobile phones.
Market research company IDC claims that revenue from European m-commerce will rise to $10.8 billion, or 13 per cent of mobile phone companies' revenue, by the end of 2003, from $1.2 billion, or 2 per cent this year.
BT Cellnet took the wraps off its mobile internet strategy last week and outlined its plans for General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and for the delivery of services using Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), a worldwide standard for wireless information and telephony services.
Content providers have been won over to the technology by the belief that once WAP technology becomes more pervasive, businesses and consumers will begin to move more of their day-to-day activities onto the new platform.
Orange leads the way
Britain's first WAP service was launched by Orange last November, but already businesses are looking to deliver more complex and sensitive services, a trend that will be accelerated by the emergence of encryption technologies for mobile services.
Baltimore last week launched the world's first product to provide encryption security between WAP phones and servers. It is geared at allowing mobile networks to support financial transactions.
Meanwhile, service providers and phone manufacturers are marketing WAP as a means of sustaining handset replacement and traffic growth. But with volume shipments of WAP handsets not expected until 2001, it comes down to the content providers to jump-start the market.
Therese Torris, of Forrester Research, said that to succeed firms must "cherry pick services and content that fit current limitations of screen size and technology and build on habitual use of the phone". Examples include flight information, stock brokerage and banking facilities.
Some high street banks claim that their existing telephone banking services are sufficient, or that they are concentrating resources on developing internet banking. But this attitude is changing, and many banks are expected to this year offer mobile banking services that promise to allow customers to keep track of their finances at the touch of a button.
Ulster Bank is hoping to become the first bank in Britain to offer customers data access to their accounts via mobile phones. The bank is using an early release WAP handset to hook up to the internet for the launch of the service in April.
It will initially offer recent account transactions, balances and cheque-book ordering, with more complex services being added as more sophisticated versions of the handsets become available.
"The speed at which we proceed is hugely dependent on security - initial WAP phones don't have the heavy-duty capacity for more advanced services," said Ulster Bank IT manager, Martin Drayne. He expects the technology to be available in three to four months' time. "WAP technology is still where the internet was three years ago," Drayne said.
Extended banking facilities
Ulster Bank's service, which will start with the Nokia 7110 handset, will be free of charge and offered as an extension of the bank's internet banking facilities which were launched six months ago. While Ulster Bank has been relatively slow to introduce internet banking, the new mobile phone service puts it ahead of its competitors.
In October, the Woolwich offered its customers a free Nokia mobile phone in return for taking part in market research on banking using WAP.
Customers of its Open Plan service will eventually be able to check balances on all their Woolwich accounts (including mortgage and unit trusts), move funds between accounts, view current and investment account statements, pay bills and issue instructions.
However, fully-fledged services are already up and running in Scandinavia, thanks in no small part to the region's love affair with the mobile phone.
Leonia Bank, Finland's second-largest bank, is backing its new mobile banking service with what it claims to be the world's first implementation of a digital certificate on a wireless phone.
Digital certificates authenticate users' identity and encrypt their transactions, in much the same way that a personal identification number safeguards automated teller machine transactions.
The SmartTrust division of Sonera, Finland's largest mobile phone operator, and CyberTrust provided the technology, which is based on subscriber identification modules (SIMS), to Leonia Bank.
Sonera SmartTrust technology enables the use of tamper-proof digital signatures and 1024-bit RSA-algorithm for data encryption. "Banking on mobile phones is more convenient and allows for time-critical information to be sent," said Pim Katrina Bond, of telecoms consultancy Analysys. She added that mobile banking would be accelerated by GPRS and the more widespread availability of WAP phones.
"There are already some banking services using Short Message Service, but WAP is easier to implement," Bond said.
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