Welcome to the Year 2000
By Justin Pearse, Mon Mar 07 08:30:00 GMT 2005

It's been a long road, but WAP is finally living up to its initial hype.

It's hard to avoid WAP these days. From media companies and retailers to Web agencies and mobile services companies, WAP site development is a hot topic. Many in the industry believe 2005 is the year WAP content will really take off in the UK, offering the next opportunity after the premium SMS gold rush. Although the operator portals will continue to play a significant role in WAP usage, the off-portal mobile Internet is also an increasingly fertile breeding ground.

That the once-derided protocol is on the ascendant is of course down to the maturity of both handsets and networks, with high-spec colour phones and fast GPRS networks leading to a, finally, compelling user experience. The numbers speak for themselves. The Mobile Data Association recorded 13.3 billion WAP page impressions in the UK last year up to November. In the words of Bango's vice president of alliances and marketing Anil Malhotra, "consumers are surfing and spending."

Sometimes it feels like 2000 all over again. Back then, Web agencies were all launching mobile divisions to concentrate on WAP sites, only to shortly shut them down once the clouds of WAP hype cleared. Now it's all starting to happen again, only this time the audience is there to support it. Interactive agency Graphico New Media has just revealed its mobile division and is about to launch six major WAP sites for companies including retailers and consumer goods manufacturers.

"We project in excess of 20% of our business will come from mobile by the end of the year," says Graphico's Graham Darracott.

The operator portals are today clearly key in driving usage, providing an easy way for consumers to discover WAP content. To help them even further, Vodafone Live! has scrapped traffic charges. At T-Mobile, senior pricing manager Uday Kansara hinted it would soon be following suit on its T-Zones mobile portal: "Dropping traffic charges is a good thing as it encourages people to use the service."

However, as important as the operator portals are, mobile content companies and brands are increasingly looking at launching standalone WAP sites.

"With WAP, we're where we were with Compuserve in 1997 saying you had to host content in its own portal, but this is changing fast," says Darracott.

Bango, which helped The Sun launch its first independent WAP site at the end of last year, is launching sites for a number of high-profile brands this year.

"Large brands that have benefited through an introduction to mobile from the operator portals are now looking to expand their reach, especially where they have their own media to promote their sites," says Malhotra.

Publisher Dennis has had huge success with its WAP portal for Maxim magazine. Guy Sneesby, MD of Dennis Interactive, says that although the operator portals still provide the "real audience for WAP today", things are changing. The company is now beginning to promote its off-portal site, launched officially six months ago, through its media properties.

"We do want to do more off-portal. We will always stay on-portal but this is an additional channel," says Sneesby.

However, most believe it will be the ringtone and logos companies, the ones still making the most out of mobile, that will lead the charge ahead of the big brands and media companies.

"In the past, they would have taken out large, expensive ads in the media to get people to text in to get the content," says MX Telecom MD Mark Fitzgerald. "They're now moving to WAP sites to enable consumers to browse, preview and buy from a range of content." And, more importantly, to bookmark that site on their phone to buy and buy again.

LaNetro Zed, one of Europe's leading mobile content companies, is launching its WAP portal in the next two weeks. "This is the next evolution, letting our customers have a Zed shop with them at all times," says marketing director Mark Harris.

Mobile services company Buongiorno, which has launched its own WAP content site and is developing off-portal sites for a number of brands, also points out that the success of standalone mobile content such as polyphonic ringtones is opening the gates for WAP sites in general.

"Everyone that buys a polyphonic has to have their WAP settings configured, as it is delivered over WAP. And the polyphonic market is booming," says the company's head of marketing, Jonnie Jensen. "This year there are enough people for the off-portal market to take off. The services we're looking to launch we feel don't need operator portals."

There is, of course, a fly in the ointment. As so often happens with mobile, it's down to billing. Billing on off-portal WAP sites is today still occurring via reverse billed SMS. This is because the WAP billing systems that make purchasing content on the operator portals so easy -- enabling content to be charged to your bill with one click -- are still not available as a third-party offering.

Vodafone's m-pay system is still only available to selected partners and the others have yet to launch. However, Orange is set to become the first to launch a wholesale offering very shortly, with the others having put the wheels in motion internally.

Surely this leisurely progress couldn't be anything to do with operators' inherent objection to the off-portal market?
?"The operators realise the concept of off-portal WAP sites is inevitable," says Minick managing director Todd Tran. "They don't want to embrace it yet, as they lose control, but as the number of WAP offerings rocket they just won't have the internal headcount to manage it."