It will completely change the way we work, play and do business. Sound familiar? This time, the revolutionary technology is wireless application protocol (Wap) and, thanks to all the hype, you just can't avoid it.
Interest in Wap has been building steadily since the first demonstrations of possible services in early 1999. The theory is that Wap lets users access rich internet content, and see it displayed on their mobile phone screens.
Analysts predict that the popularity of this service will reach sky-high levels. Fifty four million Europeans will regularly access the internet via mobile phones by 2007, according to Forrester Research. The figures are even higher if you listen to IDC: it puts mobile phone usage at one billion by 2003, with all phones internet-enabled by 2001.
With the number of Wap users already hitting the six million mark, this is an area that your organisation can't afford to ignore.
"The great thing about Wap is that if the technology continues to blur and Wap is obsolete, it isn't a massive financial loss," says Dick Spelman, chief executive of retail systems with the Halifax bank.
Businesses can reach customers anywhere, anytime, offering a degree of customer interaction previously unthinkable.
The corporate connection
Applications are also available that link employees into corporate data at a fraction of the cost of laptops - for example, Paragon Software sells software linking mobile Wap users to corporate email systems.
As a result, most organisations have woken up to the potential of Wap. Ninety per cent of European companies are planning mobile internet sites, and 50 per cent have already started development, according to Forrester.
These companies report minimal development costs, estimating annual development and maintenance at $87,000. The main cost benefit comes from the re-use of web content for Wap services.
The Wap Forum - which boasts most of the world's handset manufacturers, software developers and infrastructure players as members, not surprisingly sees Wap as the best technical solution to the limitations of mobile devices.
Traditional internet standards, such as HTTP and TCP, are not designed for the long latencies, intermittent coverage, and limited bandwidth of wireless networks. Wap allows for high degrees of data compression and its XML origins make optimum use of small screens.
Wap is also compatible with the other major upcoming wireless standard, Bluetooth, which will enable mobiles, PCs and personal digital assistants (PDAs) to communicate with each other.
That's the hype, here's the reality
Hype aside, Wap has come down to earth with a bump, following fears about security and a shortage of handsets. The current version of Wap has been criticised as slow and clunky, with service availability reaching barely acceptable quality.
More troubling is a lack of compelling applications. "Some will attract a large minority, such as banking, while some have potentially very wide appeal, such as restaurant reviews," says Carl Zetie, a director of research with Giga Information Group.
"But others are well wide of the mark," he adds. "A good example is Northwest Airlines offering the ability to check frequent flyer miles via Wap," he says. "Presumably, it's in case it changed since you left the office!"
Getting the applications right
The biggest pitfall for businesses assessing Wap isn't one of technology. "It's failing to appreciate the right kind of application that suits the limitations of a Wap device and adds significant value through being available anywhere, anytime," says Zetie. "The most valuable applications are the simple ones. For more complex applications, you are trading off the greater usability of a PDA against the greater price of those devices."
The applications most likely to succeed are those based on location or time."[Services in the style of] Yellow Pages will succeed over Wap because they are simple, location-based and timely," says Matthew Nordon, senior analyst with Forrester. "Weather and news, on the other hand, are less time critical for the vast majority of people and are unlikely to survive."
The hit and miss nature of today's applications should not dissuade businesses from taking the Wap plunge or for using it internally. "Wap can be very attractive for certain corporate applications. It can be a cheap way of mobilising the intranet or providing email and calendars to employees on the move," says Zetie.
"The main opportunity for corporations is to allow a company representative to be in contact with customers and information systems at the same time. The choices before wireless access came along were one or the other," he adds.
Case studies: how Wap works for them
Given the level of hype, the potential for disappointment is huge, with business users discovering the difficulties involved in translating Wap concepts.
Computing spoke to three companies about their experiences of turning Wap dreams into reality.
Business: Internet-only bank
Wap use: Offers customers access to accounts via Wap mobile phones
Business aims: To improve customer retention
Successes: Implemented complete project within 10 weeks
Problems: Low take-up, platform dependent, project aims not defined clearly
Top tip: Decide before you start what is the market, what can we realistically do and how do the two fit together
First-e, the online arm of French bank Banque d'Escompte, was one of the first companies to roll out Wap services. Today, customers are able to check balances and transfer funds between separate First-e accounts.
"It is the first step on a long road for us," says Tim Simpson, head of digital channels with First-e. "The protocol will mature and offer more possibilities."
In future, the bank is looking at other elements of mobile commerce, including Wap-based access for a variety of devices and, eventually, third-generation technologies.
The service was launched at the end of February this year after eight weeks of development and two weeks of testing. "We were genuinely surprised by how quickly the system was rolled out," says Simpson.
Despite the swift rollout, take-up has been slow - especially in the UK, which went live on 3 May. Just 100 users have signed up, which means there is some way to go before the bank reaches its target of 100,000 regular users by the end of the year. "That is an ambitious target given the number of customers we have as a whole, and the number of handsets that there are on the market," says Simpson. He adds that the service won't fully take off until new services are rolled out. "In the meantime, we are in a space that no one understands."
The technology infrastructure was handled by Factory, First-e's in-house IT team, while the business logic and integration of applications was developed by Brokat. A total of 15 people worked on the system, including Simpson and four internal IT staff, plus developers from Brokat.
The bank found today's technical restrictions of Wap particularly frustrating.The Wap service will only run on Nokia 9110 mobile phones, due to the differences in compatibility between handsets. Code written for the 9110 will not work on a Motorola, Alcatel or Sony handset, for example. "It would have been nice to build a device-independent solution," says Simpson. "We don't want to tie the customer in to a particular handset or network."
Return on investment is a prickly subject, as with many Wap implementations, because the level of usage is still low. Simpson believes that the positive PR generated as a result of First-e's foray into the mobile world makes the investment worthwhile. "It came at a time when we really needed it," he says, referring to security and performance glitches which resulted in bad press for the internet bank earlier this year.
Still, the company is determined to press on. While the initiative is not seen as a way of attracting new customers, it is a way of retaining those that First-e already has. "No-one is going to open an account on the basis of a Wap service," says Simpson. "But we are going to retain customers if we can anticipate their needs before the customers think of them."
The priority for the implementation is to deliver the applications, such as online brokering, that will really sell the service to customers, says Simpson. "We are aiming for those applications, but it isn't something we can jump straight into," he says.
Simpson is keen to point out that, overall, the bank feels that its use of Wap has been a success. "We managed to do it very fast," he says, a fact that he attributes to the dedication of his IT staff. "We were able to set everything up for a fixed price because of the dedication of the team."
The most important lesson First-e has learned is that it was a mistake to treat Wap as a technical project. "If I were to do it again, I would take the customer experience as a starting point," he says. "It was very much a technology-led project." The lack of business involvement was compounded by the fact that First-e brought a number of products to market at the same time as the Wap service, putting pressure on management resources.
For companies seeking to follow in First-e's footsteps, Simpson has this advice: "From day one establish and manage the customer expectation. It's hard for us to know if we have succeeded because we never really knew what the expectation was."
Business: High Street bank
Wap use: Allows customers to make payments over Wap phones
Business aims: Providing anywhere, anytime banking to customers
Successes: Achieved 1000-plus customers in first month since launch
Problems: Defining browser standards on handsets, lack of vendor knowledge
Top tip: The man in the street doesn't really understand Wap - make sure your staff do
Providing Wap facilities is part of the Woolwich's customer service initiative designed to offer anytime, anywhere banking.
"We are totally committed to providing multi-channel access for customers," says Janette Winter, head of ecommerce at Woolwich, which plans to launch digital television services later this year. "We see the phone as a key way of providing customer service. It isn't really about Wap as a technology at all," she adds.
Customers can use Nokia 7110 phones to pay bills, transfer money between accounts and arrange payments in advance. "We had a customer on holiday in South Africa who had forgotten to pay a utility bill," says Winter. "Using a Wap phone he was able to arrange prompt payment while he was out of the country."
The company was selected by Nokia as its UK partner in April 1999. The pair then embarked on a period of development, testing and trials, although Winter says the development period was short - a matter of weeks.
The two companies began working on the software, and the Woolwich project starting in earnest in December 1999. A pilot was launched in January, followed by a staff trial on 31 March this year, and a full rollout on 10 April.
The cost of development was minimised by the involvement of Nokia, although that's not to say success came cheap. "The resources were mainly allocated to branch staff training," says Winter. "We knew that users, despite their experience with mobile phones, aren't sure what Wap services actually mean, so the branches have to be able to explain the concept."
Each of Woolwich's 400 High Street branches is now equipped with a working Wap handset, and a member of staff is available to demonstrate the technology to customers. This was crucial to the successful adoption of the scheme. "The technology is really only a small part," she says. "We had to be able to sell it in a way that didn't make it look like just another mobile phone offer."
The most surprising element of the Wap rollout was the simplicity of the technology. "We were very pleased with the speed to market that we could achieve with Wap," says Winter. Adoption has also exceeded expectations, with thousands of customers taking up the Wap services. While Winter won't give numbers, she says that Wap has achieved a quarter of the penetration of internet banking.
"A good thing is that we find the Wap customers are not the same people as internet bankers," she says. "There is a different class of user that feels the mobile phone is more personal and secure than a PC."
The project was still a steep learning curve for the Woolwich. Staff with no expertise in mobile technology were given a crash course in everything from encryption to handset manufacture, so that deals could be struck more efficiently. "We did not find the level of knowledge in the vendor market, so we had to teach ourselves," says Winter. "It is, to some extent, the price you pay for being there first."
Being first to market has also meant coping with the technical limitations of Wap, particularly in the handset market. The company worked with prototype phones, and only realised late in the day that many phones on the market use different browsers and levels of encryption.
"The significance of that wasn't apparent to us as soon as it should have been," says Winter. Woolwich has now standardised on the Nokia 7110, believing it to be the only handset offering adequate security and encryption.
While transaction costs over Wap phones are lower than branches or internet banks, the Woolwich is not assessing the success of its implementation in financial terms. "We are not looking at this as a way to save money," says Winter.
The bank is philosophical about the possibility of failure. "'It's not on the same scale as a call centre, or building an internet infrastructure," says Winter. "If it does fail, it isn't a disaster for us."
Business: Developer of mobile city services
Wap use: Travel guides for a variety of European cities
Business aims: To provide content-rich services to travellers on the move
Successes: Generating £100,000 revenue in first year of business
Problems: Working around the technical differences between handsets and vendors
Top tip: Don't assume that you have to start from scratch
Citikey is Europe's first Wap-based city guide, which its creators describe as a combination of the Yellow Pages, Time Out and an A-Z. Citikey, which launched in London on 1 June, now operates in 22 cities and has offices in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid and Amsterdam. Citikey is a bit of an expert at Wap - it's been offering services in Scandinavia, home of the company's headquarters, for the last 18 months. In Stockholm, where the service has been live for more than a year, Citikey has 20,000 users.
In the weeks before its UK launch, the service was downloaded by 7,000 mobile users in London. A team of web architects and consultants developed the system in-house. "Developing a prototype system took no longer than writing a page of HTML code," says Ziad Ismail, founder and chief technology officer of the company. "The time-consuming part was the ecommerce element, the integration."
This has been an ongoing process, says Ismail, one still being improved two years after the company's launch. The Wap solution, which has more than 50,000 global users, was written in Java and grafted on to enterprise systems using middleware from BAE Systems. The firm uses a number of Wap gateways from vendors, since no one vendor can support all the platforms that Citikey's customers use.
"With hindsight, this was the biggest problem," says Ismail. "The technical differences between different handset manufacturers and different mobile network providers - you can't ever just build a Wap solution once," he says.
The development team had to take into account the fact that Wap sites look radically different on each handset: what works on a Nokia handset might not even be displayed on a Motorola, for example.
Wap phone users can enter their location on Citikey and find information on local services. For example, if a user enters a particular street in London as his location, he can then look for a nearby Thai restaurant or museum and find contact details. Users of Wap-enabled handhelds can also access maps showing the location of the places they have selected.
Implementation proved more expensive than the firm expected, costing upwards of £30,000 - a lot of money for a startup company that only has £1m of seed funding. But the payback was tremendous, says Martin Jenkins, Citikey's vice president of marketing.
"We generated £100,000 of revenue in the first year," he says, adding that the company should quadruple that figure this year. "The biggest success was taking the mobile market as a business issue, and then addressing the technology," adds Ismail.
Citikey is now looking to third-generation networks to expand its functionality. For example, with more bandwidth, there is the option of adding transaction functionality to the software, says Jenkins. Ismail's advice is not to make work for yourself. "Look around and see whether there is a service along the same lines," he says. "There's a good chance you won't have to build the system and someone, somewhere is already selling it. The technology is evolving and we, as a company, need to be at the forefront of that."
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