WAP phones abound, but where are the wireless apps?

WAP phones are everywhere, but where are the business applications to make them useful? Here's a look at the state of the Internet on mobile phones and its emerging future. Is a wireless renaissance just around the corner?

By George Lawton

When the Wireless Applications Protocol (WAP) was introduced in 1997 by Unwired Planet (now Openwave), Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia, it was expected that millions of users would soon surf the Internet wirelessly from millions of mobile phones. The visionaries were only half right.

WAP proponents were successful in getting the minimal browser onto 51 million phones shipped in 2000, and Cahners In-Stat projects that 327 million phones in 2001 will ship with the browser. However, the deployment and use of wireless phone applications remains abysmal.

Analysts cite a number of obstacles to phone-based Internet access, such as minimal screens, low data rates of only 9.6 kbps, and the lack of good business models.

Despite these obstacles, mobile phones running WAP dominate the wireless Internet access device market. Becky Diercks, a Cahners In-Stat analyst in Newton, MA, says wireless development is concentrated on WAP because of its massive installed base. Ninety-seven percent of the wireless phones now on the market are WAP-enabled. That market share is expected to grow to 99 percent this year. "If you are a developer getting into the wireless world, you have to start with phones," she explained. "The installed base is so much greater that you would be missing a tremendous opportunity than if you went with some other platform."

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WAP 2.0
WAP was first developed to ride on top of the Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML), a proprietary language developed by Openwave. In 1999, the WAP Forum rolled out the Wireless Markup Language (WML), a more sophisticated language based on XML. Most WAP services use WML.

The WAP Forum recently released a proposed specification for WAP 2.0, which adds support for TCP/IP, HTTP 1.0, XHTML, and Transport Layer Security. Diercks said, "XHMTL support will bring WAP development to a larger audience thanks to the large number of Web developers trained in HTML."

The new spec also supports SyncML, which will make it easier to synchronize contact books between a PC and a mobile phone. A number of companies have released SyncML-compliant clients, such as Ericsson, Openwave, and Samsung. A complete list of products that support SyncML can be found at the SyncML Web site.

WAP 2.0 also improves the ability to develop push applications, which automatically send data to mobile phones. Although it has been technically possible with WAP 1.0 to push data to users, many carriers such as Sprint and Verizon haven't, according to Dave Chamberlain, an analyst with Probe Research in Cedar Knolls, NJ. The reason is that although both Sprint and Verizon use WAP 1.0, their circuit-switched network implementations require users to initiate a connection to the network and cannot initiate a connection to the user.

WAP vs. Java
WAP faces competition on a number of fronts. The most established competitor is probably Sun's Java 2 Micro Edition, according to Chamberlain, which Nextel has deployed across the United States. Chamberlain said J2ME will likely replace Compact HTML in Japan.

The key benefit of Java over WAP is the ability to create applications that can run on the mobile device. For example, a company could create a dispatch application that automatically informs a repairman about his next job. But due to the poor integration between the WAP browser and other communications channels, the current generation of WAP applications would have to send the repairman a notice to check the dispatch application, instead of just sending the data directly to an application on his phone.

But this ability to add new programs in the field can also prove a liability. Chamberlain cites the huge number of phones that were recalled after a trial of Java-enabled handsets in Japan. Because the phones kept crashing, the carrier had to replace them. In addition to the cost of reinstalling the OS on crashed phones, a recall could cost companies some customer loyalty.

However, Chamberlain also noted that Nextel has been taking a more cautious approach toward deployment and, as a result, has not run into any similar problems with Java phones crashing. For example, the company isn't as likely as other carriers to tell novice users how to load a lot of potentially incompatible Java apps onto their phones. It seems more focused on helping corporate users develop and test a few strategic applications for the business market.

Qualcomm has developed another wireless data environment called Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) that allows developers to create applications once and then compile them for different phones. The advantage of BREW over Java is that the applications are optimized and compiled for each type of phone microprocessor so they run faster than Java applications that are interpreted on the fly.

Microsoft has been working on a smart phone operating system, code-named Stinger, which is being designed to support integration with other enterprise Microsoft products such as e-mail. Stinger will be an operating system and applications environment. Microsoft will provide tools and applications so developers can create corporate applications.

The future of WAP
Regardless of which of these other platforms succeed, WAP is likely to continue to dominate the installed base of wireless data applications simply because it is cheap, simple, and most phone manufacturers already include it in their devices. Furthermore, the other environments—BREW, Java 2 Micro Edition, and Stinger—can all be made backwards-compatible with WAP.

For wireless applications to really take off in the United States, companies will need to put more attention on business processes than high-tech coolness, says Phillip Redman, an analyst with Gartner Group. Information providers and enterprise developers won't likely feel comfortable developing applications for WAP until the platform boasts a lot of users and applications to work with.

Although Tom Nolle, an analyst with CIMI Corp. in Voorhees, NJ, thinks that businesses have trouble making the case for wireless phone data services today, he expects a wireless renaissance sometime after 2003. That's when he expects more services and development tools to arrive. If wireless vendors spend too much money pushing for significant deployment before then, he says, it could poison the investment climate.

George Lawton is a freelance writer and consultant based in Brisbane, CA. Prior to writing for ZDNet/CNET, George apprenticed with the Institute of Ecotechnics and helped build Biosphere II.

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