The Future of WAP and Mobile Devices

In last week’s article, we acknowledged that the whole technology has been overhyped, unrealistically raising consumers’ expectations. WAP is not the “mobile Internet” as some adverts would have you believe.

We strongly believe that the resultant backlash has led to disproportionate negativity, and the industry should focus on its achievements to date. More importantly, it should acknowledge the first step in one of the most exciting technological development roads since the inception of the Internet itself.

This week, we are going to proceed with a few of the exciting possibilities for WAP application developers (and consumers) that are imminent within the next couple of years as we move toward the 3G revolution.

First, we need to summarize the current situation with WAP. Devices shipping to date have primarily included WAP browsers supporting WAP 1.1. The next revision (WAP 1.2, now renamed WAP June 2000 by the WAPForum) is forthcoming before the end of 2000, according to some of the handset manufacturers. Of course, we will be back to the same browser-version variations that we are all so familiar with from the Internet. Therefore, it will take time for the WAP handset population to standardize and move en masse to later versions.

There are some useful features ratified into the WAP 1.1 standard that have not been implemented in general. The two most obvious ones are Location Information Services (LIS) and Wireless Telephony Applications (WTA). Both are highly exciting features for the application development community, and the good news is that both are expected in the coming revision of browser software (i.e., coinciding with the support for WAP June 2000).

LIS will probably be the killer feature for consumer-friendly WAP applications over the next few months. Most technologists already know that cellular location information (physical location) has been available to network operators for some time (in the global system for mobile communication, or GSM world). The good news is that it will now be available to WAP developers via the browser itself. The handset will effectively be able to pass back its location to the server so that the application can then send suitable information in return. A huge number of possibilities exist for this feature, ranging from “find me the nearest pizza restaurant” to “call me a cab,” all without the user having to type in anything related to his or her location.

WTA has only been implemented in a limited way (e.g., with a Nokia 7110, you will often see a “Use Number” choice in your Options menu), but it still has some enormous possibilities. If we see an explosion of m-commerce as many predict, then WTA could be used for the direct equivalent of the “call me” service now common on web sites, except that the user would make the call transparently from the WAP site through to the call center. Particularly when the handset displays are so limiting, it is highly plausible that some users will want to talk to a customer service operator before making a purchase. Developers need to make this as seamless as possible and will be able to using WTA.

Another important feature of the WAP June 2000 is push technology. This is likely to be used for ideas such as permission marketing, email applications (simply notifying you when a new mail is received), and e-voucher collection. This is a hugely important step forward for the medium, moving away from pull-only to bidirectional information. Moreover, there is a chance to have a genuinely accepted standard (unlike the various proprietary solutions for the traditional Internet) for push, with the obvious consequences of potential ubiquity.

Other important developments include the rollout of Bluetooth devices. (Ericsson has recently launched a Bluetooth-enabled wire-free, hands-free kit for mobiles.) Apart from its core application area of wire-free local area networking for computers, Bluetooth is anticipated to allow fantastic consumer applications, such as mobile phones being used to (wirelessly) hold and redeem vouchers, tickets, and tokens. Imagine walking through an electronic turnstile at the cinema with your ticket automatically debited from your mobile phone.

Much technology work is also going on in labs, such as voice browsing (VoiceML), streaming video support (for the 3G networks), and security systems (e.g., public key infrastructure, or PKI). Some of this may sound a long way off, but it isn’t. For example, BT Cellnet in the U.K. has a fully fledged 3G network trialing on the Isle of Man. The technology development is primarily complete; we are almost into the implementation and rollout phase. Furthermore, BT Cellnet has also recently launched the so-called 2.5G system, general packet radio service (GPRS), albeit aimed at corporate users in its current incarnation.

Finally, we can’t ignore the potential significance of the Japanese i-Mode system. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a head-on competitor to WAP, and NTT DoCoMo, the company behind it, is a member of the WAPForum board. i-Mode has established (in Japan, at least) that consumers will pay for premium services and that email is still a killer application even for mobile devices. There is also much debate about the relatively immature U.S. market and whether we’ll see networks finally coordinating on common standards. The recently announced tie-up of DoCoMo and AT&T clearly may have some strong implications in this matter — but that’s for another article!

Let’s all embrace the next few months and years, start talking up the achievements to date, and look forward to an exciting future for all mobile application developers and consumers.

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