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I-mode Whips WAP; Analysts Say They Can Co-exist

With common knowledge dictating that the U.S. is far behind Japan in terms of mobile Internet use, it's no wonder some insiders might feel NTT DoCoMo's popular i-mode technology will beat the stuffing out of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP).

This is not to say i-mode versus WAP is a tug-of-war between America and Japan (WAP's provenance is actually of international flavor as Unwired Planet, Motorola, Nokia, and Ericsson are all founding fathers), but rather a matter of which technology is better. Analysts feel WAP, a specification that theoretically allows users to access information via mobile phones, pagers and other various and sundry handhelds, is seriously lagging behind the proven i-mode, which is a complete brand of wireless Internet access.

Boasting over 15 million subscribers and counting, i-mode users enjoy sending and receiving e-mail, exchanging photographs, shopping and banking, downloading personalized ringing melodies for their phones, and navigating thousands of specially formatted Web sites. Though it won't start your coffee machine for you in the morning yet, or tell you the latest sales at the J.Crew a couple block away, the sky is the limit in the years to come for i-mode, analysts seem to feel.

What is Wrong with WAP? Timing!

Everything -- if you ask Jakob Nielsen, who spearheaded a detailed report on the spec. His Nielsen Norman Group unloaded on WAP when it published a 90-page finding from a field study of WAP users in London. Twenty users were handed a WAP phone and asked to use them for a week. They wrote their impressions in a diary. If you think this calls to mind a certain survivalist series, think again. Health and $1 million were not at stake, but it did seem to put a finger on the weak pulse of mobile Internet vis-`-vis WAP.

When users were asked whether they were likely to use a WAP phone within one year, 70 percent said nay. Nielsen stressed that this finding comes after respondents had used WAP services for a week, so their conclusions are more valid than answers from focus group participants who are simply asked to speculate about whether they would like WAP.

Though the report may have been melodramatic about its findings ("We surveyed people who had suffered through the painful experience of using WAP, and they definitely didn't like it"), it was hopeful for the future.

"Mobile Internet will not work during 2001, but in subsequent years it should be big," the Nielsen report said. "We thus recommend that companies sit out the current generation of WAP but continue planning their mobile Internet strategy. Don't waste your money on fielding services that nobody will use; as we document in this report, WAP usability remains poor."

The report said simple tasks, such as checking weather and reading headlines from their WAP-enabled phones, took any where from 1 to 3 minutes. When one measures that time next to the mere seconds these functions are processed from a desktop, the discrepancy is resounding.

Maybe users are spoiled by high-speed access, but it doesn't matter. The findings from the report make it clear that using a WAP phone is a textbook example of pushing forward back. To make matters worse, there are cost efficiency dilemmas inherent in the process. When one considers that airtime is charged by the minute, it is cheaper to buy a newspaper to check TV listings than it is to spend the minute calling it up on a phone.

That experiment was the gist of the report. It's not even necessary to document the numerous equipment failures that arose for the 20 miffed users.

That does it for the empirical view. What do others think?

Now to Sound Glib, but I Told Them So

David Haskin, managing editor of internet.com's allNetDevices, has been watching WAP closely for a few years. He, too, isn't convinced we are ready to rely on it.



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