GETTING UNWIRED: The way you use your mobile telephone is about to change. Instead of just informing friends and family of your whereabouts, you will soon be using it to browse web sites, receive the latest travel information, buy gifts and check your sha

GETTING UNWIRED: The way you use your mobile telephone is about to change. Instead of just informing friends and family of your whereabouts, you will soon be using it to browse web sites, receive the latest travel information, buy gifts and check your sha

by RHYMER RIGBY
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Something exciting is happening in your pocket. Or your handbag. This assumes that, like almost everyone else, you carry a mobile phone - and what is happening is the start of a fundamental shift in the way we use them.

Over the course of this year, we will see a move away from what are basically wireless audio handsets towards what the telecommunications people like to term 'personal multimedia devices'. It is about convergence - a 'wiring' together of normal telephones, mobiles, the internet, networked systems and so on - for a wireless or 'wirefree' future.

Quite how it will all shape up is uncertain but, for now, mobile telephony's biggest, brightest hope is something called WAP - wireless application protocol - the technology that enables mobile phones to browse the world wide web, or at least specially designed parts of it. WAP relies on a language called WML (wireless mark-up language), which is similar to the ordinary internet language of HTML (hypertext mark-up language). Where WML differs is that it doesn't use graphics and is designed for shorter pieces of text. The reasons are pretty obvious: first, the screens of mobile phones are monochrome and small; second, mobile bandwidth transmission speed is about 9.6 kilobytes per second (KBps), whereas modems for desktop computers run at 56KBps.

So WAP is a bit like 'internet lite' - it cannot browse true internet web sites, only WML sites, and thus delivers a pared-down version of what you might find on a normal site.

Although it is only now taking off, WAP has been around since 1997 when phone.com (formerly Unwired Planet) set up the WAP forum with Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia to provide a global standard for internet-based phone services. Specifications for WAP 1.0 were published in May 1998 but, what with getting the handsets ready and other factors, it took a long time to bring to market. It finally arrived last year with the introduction of such phones as the Nokia 7110e (offered by Orange).

'Right now, it's an exciting time,' says Phil Brown, UK managing director of Nokia, 'You'll be able to use your phone for everything from banking to finding a restaurant. There will be a panoply of services available from the different providers.' Here are some examples: for news services, the BBC has hooked up with Vodafone AirTouch; for banking, Nokia and the Woolwich have plans to allow building society customers to bank through their phones, and NatWest is also advanced with a mobile link-up; and for betting, a WRL site in Ireland called Paddypower allows users to scan the day's racecards and have a flutter over their handsets.

In Finland (the world's most mobile society with nearly 70% penetration), the WAP phone is commonplace, with commuters hooking into employer intranets to check their diaries and make appointments.

In the longer run, WAP enthusiasts speak of 'location dependent services' where one might receive flight information when arriving at an airport, or be told that a favourite shop is having a sale when arriving at the nearest train or Tube station.

For the time being, however, WAP phones are likely to be used for more mundane matters, says Bertrand Mann, head of wireless internet at Razorfish, a digital solutions company. 'Obviously, it is ideal for such banking as checking balances and transactions. Potentially, there could be share trading, too.'

More generally, he continues, it will start out as a premium service for such 'emergencies' as needing to buy a present or finding an alternative route to your venue. The services offered, he says, will develop in line with bandwidth speed. For example, today's 9.6KBps phones deliver a pretty sluggish experience - a bit like the computer-accessed internet three or four years ago. Orange already offers an HSCSD (high-speed circuit-switched data) phone that runs about four times faster, and this year or early next we can expect the arrival of another acronym, GPRS (general packet radio services), which has the potential of 380KBps.

Higher speeds will make phones far more versatile. Say you're in France and need a hefty presentation file sent to you. With GPRS you could easily have it e-mailed to your phone. You could also use your mobile to download MP3 music files and the like.

Further down the line is 3G (third-generation telephony), which promises around 2MB per second - 40 times faster than today's landline modems.

At the moment, traffic on the mobile networks is 90% voice and 10% data, but by the time 3G is up-and-running these figures should be reversed.

But this is a way off: technophilic Japan will probably see it first in 2001.

Mann believes WAP offers a great marketing opportunity and says companies should start putting their brands on phones.

Who knows? Perhaps the next big competitive edge will be a strong phone presence. 'Companies need to start defining user communities and services,' he says.

'Look at churn rates in banking, for example. People chop and change all over the place,' he continues. 'Companies need to get close to their customers, and what better way to do it than through their phones - your phone is always with you.'

Who eventually will make up the largest WAP user group could be difficult to predict. The 'early adopters', says Brown, will undoubtedly be techno trendsetters - affluent business people and the like. After that, as prices fall, anything could happen. Here Mann cites the SMS (short messaging service) experience, the technology that allows mobile users to send each other text messages. 'When we first saw SMS, users were higher-end, but what we didn't predict was the uptake from students.' SMS was a massive hit with students. Many use up more than half their monthly phone time on SMS rather than voice.

The idea that people often use new technologies for unforeseen (and sometimes trivial) ends is lent further weight by the Japanese experience with its i-Mode system (similar to WAP), which has been up-and-running for some seven months.

The most popular services include horoscopes and a downloadable screen-saver for the phone that changes daily. Moreover, as with the internet, some i-Mode users have started to set up URLs (web sites) devoted to - you guessed it - themselves.

There remain some very real questions about how good WAP actually is.

For starters, you should not equate your WAP phone with real internet access. Far from it. You won't be able to access your favourite web site unless it also exists in WML form. And then if you do, it won't be the glitzy polychromatic and interactive piece of graphic design you are used to.

'In many ways, it's more like a dressed-up form of SMS than the internet version,' says Andrew Tolputt, a mobile and convergence analyst at Phillips Tarifica, a telecoms consultancy. 'And, it doesn't really solve a problem. If you want to know when trains are running, you could just call BR and get the information that way. Its easier, quicker, more interactive and you don't need new technology such as WAP to do it.' Along with questions over its use, there are doubts about whether there will be sufficient incentive to persuade content providers to rewrite all their web sites in WML.

Finally, there is the physical problem of screen size. Make a phone's screen too big and you compromise its portability. But some of the best things about the internet are the graphics and the interactivity. In fact, it is arguable that WAP offers such a compromised version of the internet that, if you want portable surfing now, you should get an Orange HSCSD phone and hook it up to your laptop.

Not as portable, but the experience will be far richer. Orange will also have a videophone out next year and there will be a raft of portable devices which - although their screens will be smaller than laptops - will be able to offer full HTML, rather than emasculated WML, internet access.

Whatever the case, 2000 will be a make-or-break year for WAP as the major manufacturers (finally) roll out their WAP-enabled handsets and as service providers get up-and-running. It could be huge if customers used to HTML's glossy graphics and vast potential are prepared to accept WML's limitations.

But if it's simply seen as a sort of poor man's internet - well, many of us remember that other great limited service, the Rabbit phone. What we can say with certainty, however, is that, over the next few years, your phone's ability to handle information will grow exponentially. And you will start putting it to uses you had never even dreamt of. Because you can.

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