The modern age is full of technology that promised much but in the end delivered little. The technological turkey is here to stay and, much like the Rabbit phones of the 1980s that promised to herald a new era in mobile communication, Wap is teetering dangerously close to the edge.
The so-called state-of-the-art technology is being shunned by many who would rather enjoy an internet experience offered by 'archaic' technologies, such as the PC.
The harsh reality is that Wap offers the surfer a one-inch-square, black and green viewing screen with very little content of use. A fiddly keyboard and a connection speed slightly slower than an arthritic snail add up to what many consider to be an unsound investment.
BT is handing out more than 330,000 Wap phones this year through its online banking partners, such as Egg and Cahoot. Week after week, free Wap phones are given away with computers and digital TV boxes. And Going Places, the travel company, is running a competition to win a "dream holiday" as well as thousands of Wap phones.
All this seems to imply that Wap phones aren't worth a great deal. Figures from BT show that 200,000 Wap phones have been sold in the UK to date. The number is far fewer than the anticipated 500,000 sales in the first quarter of 2000. This is almost insignificant when you consider that more than 30 million people in the UK own a mobile phone.
The public appears apathetic and oblivious to Wap. An online survey conducted by the Consumers' Association last month reported that two-thirds of internet users did not understand the terms Wap or GPRS (general packet radio services). Half of all internet users, it continued, wanted access to email on their mobile phones. Coming a close second and third was banking services and travel information. More importantly, 20 per cent said they wouldn't want access to any of these services.
It appears that the Wap turkey has given up the ghost before it's even had a chance to fly. One of the problems could be the blaze of publicity that accompanied the launch of Wap phones last November. There was a huge waiting list, and the idea of happily surfing the web, and sending and receiving emails while sat on the top deck of a bus would have appealed to many.
However, it didn't take long for subscribers to realise that the next new dawn in mobile communications had its own set of limitations. Slow connections and high call charges were only part of the problem. The lack of meaningful and useful Wap sites only made things worse.
"Wap has been completely over-hyped with respect to what can be delivered today," says James Royan, chief technology officer of MessageCentral. "This is really unfortunate for Wap as it has meant the consumer base has been completely disenfranchised. They don't believe that Wap is going to deliver a useful technology in the future."
This has lead to uncertainty in the market. There is clearly a need for quick access to certain types of data, which something like an SMS-based service could provide. The trouble with SMS, however, is it restricts the amount of information you can put on a message, which is the core reason why people have been looking at Wap and iMode.
"The marketing people for Wap really need to get their head around the idea that it is not the 'mobile internet', it's something else," warns Royan. "They need to define what that is and start calling it something else, rather than leading people up the Swannee."
Tim Warren, chief officer of service delivery at Ipulsys, echoes similar sentiments. "In the absence of serious services, the marketing machine went into a frenzy of hyperbole. The effort to convince users of the need to adopt an embryonic service without any good commercial logic was doomed to failure. This is not necessarily a 'final failure' of Wap - look at the skateboard craze that came, died and was reborn into a huge market - Wap might yet do the same in the retail market," he says.
The lack of serious content, the absence of any meaningful business-to-business services and insufficient bandwidth meant that the initial Wap services were poor. The hope is that this will change if quality services come to market quickly.
While Wap bears little resemblance to a normal web page, both have similar technical issues. Unavailable or downed Wap sites are easily encountered, and many handsets crash on a regular basis requiring a power recycle to respond again.
One thing that is missing is the ability to upgrade the micro-browser. There is a standard called MExE (mobile station application execution environment) which was put together by the Wap forum and the European Telecom Standards Institute, based on the Javaphone model.
The idea is that you have downloadable applications with which you can keep track of your mobile phone software and level of browser. Included within it is the ability to upgrade the handset's browser.
That is not going to happen today as there are limitations on the Rom in the handset and the bandwidth available.
But Wap isn't the only game in town. NTT DoCoMo, Japan's biggest mobile network, is basking in the success of its iMode service. This differs from Wap in one key way - it is much easier for developers to convert existing web pages to iMode than do a full rewrite to Wap.
At present, amusement and entertainment account for 40 per cent of iMode traffic. Information services such as news and weather account for 20 per cent with financial services coming in at around 10 to 15 per cent. Only 15 per cent of traffic comes from services outside DoCoMo's portal.
Another factor in the iMode equation is its permanent connection to the internet. Information is pumped down to the phone using an 'always-on' connection that avoids the entire dial-up process.
"It's a relatively similar technology right from the language that it uses, to the underlying network layers," says James Pearce, UK director of the wireless developer's website Anywhereyougo.com. "It's not any faster, but it's been brought to market in a far more streamlined and controlled fashion."
With iMode there is one operator in control of a service, so DoCoMo has been able to roll out a technology that can be deployed consistently. People developing applications for it have found it much easier to make things work, and they have not experienced the interworking problems between the different phones and gateways that developers have been facing with Wap.
But as Pearce points out, some of iMode's success in Japan down to the technology culture of the country. "Having cool things on little gadgets have always attracted the Japanese consumer. Also, not many Japanese have internet PCs at home. Internet penetration is that much lower, which means that being able to access it over your phone is possibly the only personal internet experience that many Japanese have," he says.
"You could say that Wap probably won't be successful in the UK and the US. You could argue that those cultures are already familiar with the wired internet and have quite high expectations as to what it can bring them."
However, iMode is not without its problems. There are doubts about the appropriateness of the language itself. iMode is a subset of HTML and as yet, there has been little thought about what is, and what isn't, appropriate for a wireless device.
To date, the Wap Consortium has concentrated on optimising documents, making sure that they are as small as possible once sent to a phone. In comparison, iMode has been more pragmatic and chopped off the expensive bits of HTML.
Another problem for Wap is the seeming confusion over a standard for the protocol. Wap is in itself a standard, although from the behaviour of some of its steering group members would suggest otherwise. It will continue to be modified and some of its 'features' will eventually migrate into an extended but standard model.
"As long as the key players, the manufacturers and network companies, support it, it will survive, possibly into a new incarnation as a useful mobile tool," says Warren.
But what of the future of wireless internet? And how will it pay its way in the world? Ben Wood, business development director of Mobile Lifestreams, doesn't think that advertising will sustain Wap.
"The future will be the operators being prepared to share Wap minutes with application developers and content providers. That is one of the revenue scenarios. Some of the content may get licensed to particular portals so a Wap site may do an exclusive deal with one of the network operators and remove it from general circulation. This would be a shame, but commercial realities have to play a part," says Wood.
The wireless industry and analysts alike believe - and more probably hope - that more people will be accessing the internet from their mobile phone than from their PCs in the next few years.
They also anticipate that handsets will have the computing power of a sophisticated laptop within the next five years and that these devices will be used for nearly all our communication and information needs.
But aside from this wistful dreaming of a bright technological future, it is important for the industry to realise that above all other considerations, managing the consumer's expectations is foremost among them.
If the end user fails to see the benefit of Wap they will quickly ditch it in favour of something more appropriate to their needs and desires.
Just over the horizon is GPRS. It is soon to be launched in the UK, and has already been announced by BT Cellnet. Instead of being charged by the second as in present circuit-based services, GPRS leaves you permanently connected and only charges you for data received.
Rather than the eagerly awaited third generation (3G) mobile phones, which are still two or three years away, GPRS is seen as second-and-a-half generation, often referred to as 2.5G.
GPRS could hand Wap a lifeline, but at the expense of making the current generation of Wap phones obsolete. This will further alienate users, who are already disenchanted by the technology, and is unlikely that BT will give away 300,000 of those.
The reason? Because GPRS is always open, and charged on content downloaded rather than time online, the operators stand to make a lot less money. Having just shelled out more than £30bn on licences for 3G, network operators are unlikely to rush through the new technology.
At the end of the day Wap is only a stopgap. The huge amount of money put into its marketing is testament to this. In truth, mobile internet access and communications cannot be a reality until the final 3G standard is clarified and products start shipping. Until then, Wap is something to impress your mates with down the pub.
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