WAP links cellular networks to the Net. The gateways allow operators to offer information services that are hosted in the IP space, which in turn lets 800-pound gorillas like AOL, Microsoft, Oracle, and Yahoo! into the act. Thus, the cosy world of cellular telephony came to an abrupt end at the end of 1999 and progress in 2000 will now come in leaps and bounds.
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This is good news for consumers and business professionals, but there is a downside: WAP has also introduced aggressive computer-type marketing and hype into the equation. The media - particularly the US magazines and newspapers - have gone wild on the idea of the Wireless Internet. As a result, expectations have been driven to unrealistic heights and quite soon the same media will start trashing the concept because the industry didn't deliver on their impossible promise.
It's not fair and it's not logical, but that's the way things are in the computer business.
The heart of the matter is very simple. WAP unites but it also divides. The communications and computing communities have very different views of the Wireless Internet because they live on different sides of the gateway. And this divide also shows up on the atlas.
The US is Net-centric, so the current perception is one of surfing the Internet using a light version of a regular browser (e.g. Microsoft's Mobile Explorer). The content is hosted in so-called wireless portals, which are really the same thing as regular portals with the graphics stripped out. In this case there is no need for a gateway.
Europe and the rest of the GSM community are comms-centric, so subscribers expect network operators to offer a comprehensive service portfolio and thereby eliminate the need to surf and search. The content still resides in the Net, but this is not reflected in the users' experience. Ideally - and these solutions are being marketed and implemented - the service offer should appear on the operator's own Web site. Services are selected using a PC and provisioned over the air to the mobile, i.e. this process generates a personalised portal that appears the next time the phone is used.
No Right or Wrong Way
In principle there is nothing wrong with either way of enabling a wireless Internet service, but things work out differently in practice.
It is easy to criticise the Euro-GSM approach, which The Economist has called a 'walled garden' model. The key issue here is the ability to access information other than that in the operator's portfolio. The publication argues that portfolios represent a restriction that hampers competition and innovation. However, this is not the case. Subscribers can employ the US model at any time by 'dialling' into wireless portals in order to add other services.
What is less obvious - and rarely gets mentioned in the press - is the dialling process. In order to access a Web site the user must key in http:// followed by the site name, e.g. http://xyzmobile.com. This is easy to do on a PC, but the location of colons (:) and forward slashes (/) are less than obvious on the keypad of a mobile phone and this makes the access process somewhat clumsy. User friendly it is not.
Once sites have been accessed they would normally be saved as bookmarks, however, this means that heavy users end up with a long, unstructured list. For example, the subscriber cannot put football, tennis and athletics into a generic folder called 'sports'.
The other serious issue concerns the use of light HTML versus WML. Content created in or correctly converted to the Wireless Markup Language will give the optimum display on the small screen of a mobile phone. This is not the case when regular Web content based on HTML is used and the graphics are simply removed. Thus, there is a very real danger that this 'quick and dirty' approach will lead to a negative reaction from the market.
Who is Ahead and Does It Matter
Traditional wisdom says that Europe leads in wireless, while America is ahead when it comes to the Internet. However, Finland and Sweden have a much higher percentage Internet penetration than the US. This helps explain why these two countries are ahead when it comes to the Wireless Internet, but what really matters is not short- or even medium-term leadership, but the creation of a very large cake for wireless services, information, and applications.
This will not be achieved if expectations are pitched too high and if breakthrough developments such as WAP are trashed before they get off the ground. This communications revolution has only just started, but it is already widely and wildly misunderstood.
Bob's Byte is a regular column on TheFeature. Bob Emmerson observes and writes on the wireless industry from his home in The Netherlands.