No sooner had the debutantes of the wireless world emerged into society at CeBIT and Wireless 2000, than they were very publicly betrothed.
Both of these shows saw a dizzying array of partnerships and alliances that purported to complete the wireless picture for enterprises, but actually offered little in the way of tangible benefits.
"What this industry really needs is partnerships," declaimed Sun Microsystems president Ed Zander at Wireless 2000. And lo, the industry listened. Sun is developing end-to-end corporate wireless solutions with the help of BellSouth, Lucent and Palm; Siebel will team up with Palm to bring enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management to mobile devices. Meanwhile, IBM is partnering with Nextel to offer real-time access to corporate email systems, and Qualcomm is cosying up to Microsoft to develop Windows CE-based mobile phones.
Sounds great; but how long until these engagements lead to the altar of usability? "The applications that really matter to business users are unified messaging, personal information management, instant messaging and content," says Alain Rossman, chief executive of phone.com and founder of the Wap Forum. This means that wireless internet is unlikely to take off before these services reach the market, at least 12 months away in the US and longer in Europe.
Obstacles to be overcome
According to Forrester Research, 90 per cent of European corporates plan to roll out mobile internet sites before 2003, by which time 14 per cent of Europeans (54 million) will use mobile internet services. But we're not there yet.
The hurdles preventing the release of corporate wireless services are being overcome, however. Bandwidth will increase this summer, with the release of BT Cellnet's general packet radio service (GPRS) and Orange's high-speed circuit switched data (HSCSD) networks.
But until then? "Accessing the internet wirelessly is possible - but it's pretty painful," admits Dilip Mistry, wireless and mobility manager with Microsoft. This doesn't mean you should ignore wireless internet until all the problems are solved, however.
"Organisations who lay the groundwork early will be the ones who see the real benefit of HSCSD," says Lars Godell, European telecom analyst with Forrester Research. Forrester advises organisations to deal with wireless application protocol (Wap) now, as both an internal technology and a customer service tool.
"As a first step, you should Wap-enable your internet content," adds Godell. "The technology available today can dramatically improve customer relationship management and customer care."
Get wired into Wap now
For example, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax banks are rolling out Internet-based Wap services to customers via mobile phones. "Although it doesn't involve a large percentage of customers, we will learn by being involved at the early stage of the technology," says Dick Spellman, chief executive of retail services at Halifax.
Wap messaging and transaction applications are relatively inexpensive and simple. "These devices are becoming increasingly commoditised," points out Tim Sheedy, senior analyst with IDC. "Within a year, we will see Wap gateways being given away." It is possible to outsource application development to a specialist, such as Razorfish, which is currently developing Wap services for Vodafone Airtouch, or to a carrier such as Nokia, which has developed Wap services for corporates.
Of course, delivering content to wireless customers doesn't have to involve Wap. Using HTML microbrowsers on mobile phones can be slow, but it cuts out the need for translation. "No corporate wants to author information twice," says Mistry, adding that Microsoft will continue to support Wap and HTML in its smartphone platform. Microsoft and BT have rolled out a trial of HTML-based internet access to 1000 mobile phone users. "Although GPRS will make things easier, it's important to know you can do these things today."
Big software from small companies
While the big hitters have yet to roll out the killer apps mentioned by Rossman, small software firms have been offering connectivity to corporate networks for around six months. Fenestrate, Sendit and Wireless Knowledge all offer software for Wap access to corporate email systems and intranets.
A similar product is available from Paragon Systems, snapped up by US wireless giant Phone.com last month.
Nokia offers a Cardphone for use with mobile phones that allows users to connect to corporate networks as HSCSD speeds, using a laptop or mobile phone with ethernet connection. Alternatively, IBM will translate your organisation's intranet content into flexible XML for around $200,000 (£126,000).
This is where the industry agrees Wap is heading. "If you only do one thing, prepare for flexible XML content," says Godell. "Without that corporate infrastructure in place, you won't be able to deal with it when the floodgates open."
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