Being on when you’re out: mobile internet technology

Why mobile internet access?

Precisely what is the attraction of being able to access the internet while you’re away from your PC? Dot.coms like Amazon have been busy arranging for customers shop on their websites via mobile phone, but some analysts aren’t convinced customers really want this sort of thing. ‘It’s debatable whether ordinary consumers are actually demanding mobile e-commerce services right now,’ said senior Ovum analyst Duncan Brown recently, launching a new report on ‘Mobile E-commerce: Market Strategies.’ ‘It’s more a case of suppliers sensing an opportunity to make money, and pushing the idea at them.’

Other consumer-oriented delights of the web, such as multimedia entertainment, don’t translate very well to a tiny screen on a phone or PDA (personal digital assistant, or palmtop computer), either. But there are situations – especially business situations – in which there would be obvious advantages to connecting to the web via a mobile device.

Ovum suggests that, whereas there isn’t much to be said for ordering a pizza over a web phone rather than an ordinary phone, a business user on the road could benefit from an online hotel booking service. Your phone could automatically find you a suitable hotel based on knowledge of your location and preferences, and then make you a booking. And it’s easy to see the attraction of continually monitoring prices of stock or other volatile commodities, and dealing on the spot, without having to rush to the nearest PC. In fact, broker Charles Schwab has said that its new service for mobile phone and PDA users, soon to be launched in the US, was developed in direct response to customer demand.

What is WAP?
The Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) is hogging much of the limelight in relation to mobile internet use at the moment. It’s a set of standards for transmitting information to (and from) mobile devices. Obviously, you can’t display the whole of a conventional web page on a screen that’s only an inch or two high, so providers of information, such as proprietors of websites, rewrite or transform their content into WAP format to make it available to mobile phone and PDA users. The result can be interactive, like a conventional web page, but obviously the interactions are limited by the controls on the device – a phone doesn’t have a mouse (yet).

WAP is looked after by the WAP Forum, an industry organisation of more than 200 members representing most parts of the communications business, together with e-commerce players like and Charles Schwab.

WAP is not the only standard
Recently there has been a flurry of WAP-related announcements. Just look at BT Cellnet, for example: in March, it launched the UK’s first pre-pay WAP phone, plus a new pricing structure to ‘take the mobile internet to the mass market’. BT was predicting sales of up to half a million WAP phones in three months from April to June, and Durlacher Research analysts have gone so far as to say: ‘We believe that after 2001 no mobile phones will be shipped that are not WAP enabled.’

But not everyone thinks it’s a foregone conclusion that WAP will win out as the standard for wireless internet access. There are several other ways of pushing information out to mobile phones. For example, there’s the good old SMS (Short Message Service), which isn’t interactive in the sense that a web page is, but nevertheless allows the electronic exchange of one-liners in a fuss-free format, and is available on most current phones, unlike WAP. And an estimated five million Japanese people are using NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode, a non-WAP mobile internet service.

What’s more, a patents dispute over WAP has recently arisen, with a company called Geoworks claiming intellectual property rights in the standards and attempting to collect licence fees from anyone implementing them. Some commentators think that that could put a damper on WAP uptake.

For prospective WAP users, though, the outcome of the standards battle is really a non-issue, since a mobile phone is not normally viewed as a long-term investment. For companies putting together websites, it pays to use an architecture that keeps content separate from delivery mechanisms, so that whatever standards and devices are used in future, you don’t have to change the way you organise the underlying information. Products like Day Interactive’s Communiqu? 2 are designed to bring about this separation of form and content.

Electronic paper
Convenient though it is to have access to up-to-date information, it’s hard to see oneself settling down for a good read with a mobile phone or PDA. The format just isn’t as conducive to browsing (in the traditional sense) as a newspaper or magazine is.

A compromise could be around the corner. Xerox Corporation and 3M are working on ‘electronic paper’ – a material that will be as thin and portable as paper, but can be refreshed like today’s computer screens. ‘E-paper’ could be used to ‘print’ something closely resembling a conventional newspaper, but one that could be erased and re-used next day. Alternatively, the ‘newspaper’ could be associated with a mobile internet device, and updated with the latest news while you read.

It could be five years before e-paper is in production, and more before it’s affordable for everyday use. But when it is, one result could be a mobile internet technology that even the most technophobic of us could enjoy using.

WAP forum, with information about the protocol:
IT industry analysis from Ovum:
BT Cellnet’s portal for mobile internet users:
Details of how to shop on Amazon via a mobile phone:
Geoworks position on WAP licensing:

More about ‘electronic paper’:

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