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RealTime IT News

What's the Rap on WAP?

{SOUTH AFRICA] So far, WAP has been a non-event. Declared as the protocol that would lead the world's cellphones onto the Internet, critics say it's a vehicle for over-promising hype that falls far short of the mark. But it's early days yet.

Although the Internet has been around for decades, it only became part of the mainstream with the graphical browser and the ability to view pornographic pictures in the mid-1990's . The problem with accessing the Internet with a phone is that phones don't have 15-inch screens or full-function keyboards. But if you believe the marketing hype, you believe that using a phone and a PC to access the Net are comparable experiences.

The result, of course, is disappointment. Combine this with network outages, the expense of connecting with a cellphone and the cripplingly slow download speeds and disappointment turns into rage.

Then why are there 12 million subscribers to the Japanese company NTT DoCoMo's (www.nttdocomo.com) I-mode Internet phone service, which utilizes a protocol that competes with WAP? That's more than twice the worldwide number signed up for WAP in Japan alone.

For a start, you only pay for content you download, not for the time you spend on the Net, an 'always online' scenario. Secondly, it supports graphics far better than WAP - they've even signed a deal with SEGA to provide online games for the phone. Lastly, the company streamlines billing, integrating subscription fees into its own billing scheme, so that consumers receive a single bill at the end of the month, all-charges included.

What can WAP learn from this? The keys to the I-mode phone's success is its ease of use, simplified billing and its offering of popular applications that include graphics. The fact that they only have to pay for the content, not the time it takes to get it, increases the attraction. The product is designed for the consumer on the move -the businessman and the teenager- and it teaches WAP an old lesson: The medium is the message.

But it's still early days for mobile Internet connectivity, and WAP itself is only just a year old, with 5 million subscribers of its own, and uses the more widely accepted circuit switching (as opposed to packet-switching) technology. As the hype fades, people will start having more realistic expectations of the WAP promise. A promise that revolves around time and location.

Cellphones already provide a way to determine their user's location. Applications that leverage this ability -that suggest restaurants in the area, for example- can expect to do well. WAP applications that address time-critical issues will do even better.

The businessman on the move can track shipments or access pricing and inventory lists. Bankers unable to access a computer or ATM -being out of the country, for example- can check their balances, transfer funds and make payments. Teenagers will make sure they read all their e-mail, ASAP, and check out movie reviews before buying their tickets -both via the phone, of course. As technology advances, we may even find ourselves listening to webcasts over our modern-day sidearms.

But things that look better over a 15-inch screen will continue to do so and keyboards will always be easier to type on than keypads. If we can stand to wait until we get behind our PCs again, we will - WAP pundits take note.