The networking world has for the past few months been buzzing with anticipation over the wireless application protocol (Wap). This set of wireless communication protocols and content specifications is designed to deliver the wealth of the web, quite literally, into the hands of the masses.
Wap enables both web and corporate intranet content to be downloaded to mobile telephones, personal digital assistants and other wireless devices.
The potential implications for the future of the internet itself, and particularly for ebusiness, are staggering. But as industry experts are now beginning to warn, the technical ramifications for network managers, particularly relating to security, are equally significant. Wap technology must evolve - and quickly - if it is to deliver on its potential.
The first hurdle that Wap must clear is the current speed of the global system for mobile communications (GSM) specification, which at 9.6Kbps limits Wap-enabled mobiles to short, basic text messages such as sports scores, headlines and weather reports. The upcoming general packet radio service (GPRS) architecture will increase this to 115Kbps, allowing a far richer seam of content to be mined, such as full-size colour web pages, Mp3s and video.
The shortage of Wap-enabled devices must also be addressed - for as James Pierce, UK director of Wap integrators anywhereyougo.com, said: "There is no point installing Wap in a corporate network until enough employees have the phones. However, I think that will happen within a year or 18 months."
Growing up quickly
Pierce said that although Wap application software remains, for now, immature, corporates will want to jump on the Wap bandwagon sooner rather than later. "Nokia have already developed an enterprise Wap server. Once the phones become available, then installation of services will become an important issue for network managers," he said.
Some issues, such as how Wap can be correctly integrated into a company intranet and directory, are yet to be addressed by suppliers. Pierce predicts these problems will be resolved by the major ebusiness companies. He said this gives administrators time to buy a Wap server and experiment with test pages. "It is not difficult to learn. Any internet developer should be able to get their head around the sort of code needed to build test pages," he said.
The nuts and bolts
The Wap specification defines protocols for each application layer including session, transaction, security and transport. Its application environment (WAE) enables the development of micro-browsers, scripting facilities, email, web-to-mobile handset messaging, and mobile-to-telefax access. All use internet standards such as extensible markup language (XML), user datagram protocol (UDP), and hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), that have been optimised for wireless implementation.
However, internet standards are inefficient over mobile networks and require the sending of large amounts of data, much of it text based. In addition, the smaller screens of mobile phones and pagers prevent HTML content being properly displayed.
Wap uses compressed, binary transmission optimised for high latency and low bandwidth. Wap sessions can also cope with intermittent coverage and can operate over different wireless transports.
Wap content uses wireless markup language (WML) and WMLScript, which makes optimum use of small displays. This content is scalable from a two-line text display on a basic device to a full graphic screen on the latest smart phones.
The lightweight Wap protocol stack is designed to minimise the required bandwidth and maximise the number of wireless network types that can deliver Wap content. These include GSM 900, 1800, and 1900 Mhz; interim standard (IS) 136; digital European cordless communication (DECT); time-division multiple access (TDMA); personal communications service (PCS); and code division multiple access (CDMA).
All network technologies and bearers are supported, including short message service (SMS), circuit-switched cellular data (CSCD) and cellular digital packet data (CDPD). Requests from a mobile device are sent as a URL through the operator's network to a Wap gateway - the interface between the operator's network and the internet.
Initially, services will run over a traditional SMS bearer, which will dictate the nature and speed of early applications, Pierce said. "GSM currently does not offer the data rates that would allow mobile multimedia and web browsing, but with the advent of GPRS, which is aimed at increasing the data rate to 115Kbps, as well as other emerging high-bandwidth bearers, the reality of access speeds equivalent or higher than that of a fixed-line scenario become more believable."
Pierce sees GPRS as the perfect partner for Wap because it has distinct time slots that manage data packets in a way that prevents users from being penalised for using standard circuit-switched connections. He predicts that Wap technology will turn mobile terminal manufacturing on its head.
Small will be beautiful
However, Pierce does not believe that web browsing will be the main driver behind Wap, because it takes too long and will be difficult on a small handset. Instead, he predicts that real-time applications and services that demand small, key nuggets of information - such as stock prices, news, weather and travel information - will fuel the success of Wap.
"The Wap application strategy involves taking existing services that are common within a fixed-line environment and tailoring them to be purposeful and user friendly in a wireless environment," he said.
Belfast based Apion, recently acquired by Phone.com (formerly Unwired Planet), was one of the first to market a Wap gateway, at the GSM World Congress in February last year. Apion's Wap Gateway provides a link between mobile networks and the internet and allows Wap-enabled mobile devices to request services and information from web servers.
Denis Murphy, former Apion managing director and now European director of Phone.Com, said: "The release of Wap Gateway was the first phase in our attempts to capture a large slice of the 1.4 billion mobile users who are expected by 2003."
Phone.Com's purchase of Apion was followed by other acquisitions, which Murphy says will provide additional services to Wap based equipment. These include voice portal company At Motion, synchronisation company Paragon, and unified messaging outfit One.Box.
Nokia produces a dedicated Wap gateway server, which they have so far sold to France Telecom, Okobank, Deutsche Bank and Visa. Last month they demonstrated a wireless identity module (WIM) - a tamper-resistant device that provides certificate based authentication and digital signature applications for Wap services.
Securing users' confidence
WIM is included in the Wap 1.2 specification and can be implemented on a GSM SIM card, making the operator card a multi-application platform which can be co-branded for various mobile ebusiness schemes. Pekka Pohjakallio, mobile internet director at Nokia, said: "With WIM, mobile ecommerce transactions over Wap become more secure, inspiring confidence in the end user."
Such devices provide a belt and braces approach to ebusiness security: the Wap standard is already fairly secure as its wireless transport layer security (WTLS) provides encryption and authentication between client and server.
However, it is not necessary to own a Wap gateway, says Pierce. "If you want basic Wap content you can use an ordinary web server and add Mime types to your server," (see box). After making these changes, mobile devices can connect to your server through a Wap gateway located in their mobile operator's network. But Pierce believes that there are some advantages to hosting applications on a Wap gateway, particularly if operators want information about users' identity and location.
Writing and testing WML pages is similar to ordinary web pages (some Wap phones even have the facility to store cookies). It is also possible to covert HTML pages using a package such as Spyglass Prism, or to do it on the fly with a Wap gateway filter. But generally this is not recommended, as HTML pages are designed for PCs and are unlikely to translate to the restricted dimensions of a telephone screen. Ideally transmissions should be kept under 1400 bytes.
Nokia and Ericsson provide Wap software development kits that feature 'soft' phone browsers, which enable pages to be depicted as they would appear on a phone screen. Both are Java environments and run on a range of operating systems.
Any text-editing tool can be used to write simple WML pages. HTML authoring tools can be useful if they support user-definable tags. Experienced - or brave - administrators can use graphics on WML pages using the wireless bitmap (WBMP) format. Plug-ins for Adobe Photoshop 5.x and Paintshop Pro that support the WBMP format are now available.
It is also possible to create WML pages that can access a database using active server pages and Java servlets. However, the intensive use of Wap with databases is more likely now that Oracle has stepped into the market.
In November the company released Portal-to-Go, which an Oracle spokesperson said will allow internet and mobile service providers to deliver dynamic internet services to mobile devices without having to modify the content format.
Moreover, Oracle is to launch its own mobile portal at www.oramobile.com, which will be available only in the US at first, and will provide Wap access to sites such as AllSites, Amazon, Astrology, eBay and E-Trade through an Oracle Wap gateway.
In the UK, the big four mobile phone companies have tried to keep their Wap users locked into their own networks. However, Pierce does not think this is going to last, because sooner or later competing Wap portals are certain to be launched. "A Wap call is simply a phone call to a web server. When companies start their own Wap portals, users are more likely to use them," he said.
Wap could change the face of ebusiness and service delivery, and competition in the mobile market is certain to intensify. But before a broad base of potential users can be established, network administrators must take on board the importance of Wap and the risks inherent in opening networks to the airwaves.
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