Andy Butler sleeps with the fishes. Or at least he will if certain wireless vendors ever get hold of him. At this month's Gartner Symposium in Florence, the research director had the temerity to suggest that the wireless application protocol might not be the technological equivalent to the Second Coming after all.
Speaking at the event, which focused on mobile devices' potential for ebusiness, Butler argued that there are so many problems with the technology in its current incarnation as to render it impractical for business.
"At the moment, Wap and the devices that are on offer are not practical. The screens are still too small and there are still compatibility issues between handsets, because of the different Wap versions in use," he warned delegates. "It isn't suitable or fast enough for serious use in the mass market yet."
Wap on trial
Butler wasn't asking anyone to take his word for it, however. Delegates were invited to take part in a localised Wap trial. Using a Nokia 7110 phone, they accessed the entire event guide, including speaker biographies, tourist guides for Florence and daily news.
The results were, perhaps, predictable. Accessing the data was a slow process, and the eventual results were displayed on an eye-wateringly tiny screen.
Not content with pointing up the limitations of a one-way interface, the Gartner trial also highlighted the limitations of Wap for two-way interaction. Delegates were given the opportunity to evaluate the conference sessions via the phone, rather than by scribbling on a bit of paper as is traditionally the case. Marks were awarded on different aspects of each session using a web form.
This data was then transmitted back to a server, where it could hopefully be analysed. Again performance was slow, with users forced to wait while the data uploaded and downloaded.
Despite these problems, it is Wap's potential, rather than its performance, that has experts in a spin. After all, the use of websites has changed rapidly over the last two years, moving away from traditional applications, such as passive information gathering (online reference services), towards portals offering direct sales to the consumer and online quotation. More time-consuming tasks involved in a sale have been moved to the web, leaving the conclusion of the sale to take place either on the phone or in person.
Hitting the target
It is this factor which is driving content providers to offer services via mobile devices; in particular, Wap empowers mobile phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs). Gartner estimates that in the first quarter of 2000, 44 per cent of the UK population had access to a mobile phone, compared with 18 per cent with internet access and just 10 per cent with digital TV.
This level of penetration is making mobile solutions the practical option for delivering retail and information services to the wider public, as well as allowing content providers to target more affluent sectors of society.
The Gartner trial, while hampered by the current technological limitations highlighted by Butler, still gives a glimpse of what the future may hold when the technology eventually catches up with the hype.
The platform may eventually be used for a number of tasks. Take banking as an example. Gartner predicts that banking services over a mobile device will fall into three specific categories. First are general tasks, such as checking balances, paying pre-arranged bills and checking the status of uncleared cheques. The existing technology can cope with these easily.
Then there is the unplanned transaction, such as transferring funds, reporting stolen credit cards or applying for an overdraft. These require more detailed input than general tasks (which normally require only numeric entry and selection from menus) and so are less well suited to phones, but can be dealt with by PDAs and other devices with fuller keyboard facilities.
Finally, there are the applications which take advantage of a phone or PDA's portability, and provide information on local surroundings. Even existing mobile phones can be used in location-specific applications, because the location of the device can already be triangulated to within a few metres of the precise location. This capability can be applied in banking to offer information on nearest cash machines, branch addresses and location maps, says Gartner.
Location-specific functionality can be employed to offer localised special offers to someone using the device, such as enticing the user into nearby shops, allowing taxi firms to locate passengers who are unsure of where they are, and sourcing localised travel information.
Pre-planned applications include food shopping from pre-arranged shopping lists. Unplanned services could include ordering travel insurance and making reservations for airline, theatre or cinema tickets.
Until general packet radio service switching is implemented later this year, Wap services will continue to be constrained by the speed available over existing cellular circuit switching technology.
Along with the limited size and display resolution of most Wap-enabled devices, this remains a key factor limiting the appeal of these devices to content providers and the general public.
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