The Wireless Web--At What Price?
No one doubts that mobile Web access is a valuable business tool. but given the current state of the technology, is it a wise business investment?
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At this writing, Motorola is preparing to "de-orbit" (the editor in me cringes) the 66 satellites that were not so long ago the shining centerpieces of the worldwide wireless phone system that was Iridium. A Gartner Group analyst is reported to have raised questions about Sprint PCS's announcement of 56K wireless connectivity. And now we hear that WAP, the much-ballyhooed Wireless Application Protocol that is supposed to bring the Web to every pocket in the world any day now, is about to face competition from a popular Japanese Web-surfing protocol.

It's enough to make one want to go back to quill pens, parchment and leather-bound ledgers. Well, not quite. But messing around too near the bleeding edge of technological innovation can leave you with the red stuff all over your hands--and, if you aren't careful, your financials, as well.

Consider WAP. As an excellent technology assessment paper from Zona Research (What About Protocol? WAP at the Dawn of the Wireless Internet, www.zonaresearch.com) points out, this wireless Web access tool is not catching on as quickly as expected. The nonprofit WAP Forum was created three years ago by some impressive names in wireless communications (Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Unwired Planet). It now has more than 500 member companies, which, says the organization, represent more than 90 percent of the global handset market and more than 100 million subscribers. Nonetheless, observes Zona, "Technical bloopers, industry infighting and consumer indifference have made the road toward a wireless, WAP-enabled Internet environment anything but smooth."

WAP, in case you missed the earlier fanfare, is programming technology that allows Internet access regardless of the specific hardware design of the wireless terminal. It does so by translating Web pages from either HTML, the lingua franca of the Web, or the newer, more flexible XML into Wireless Markup Language.

WML-encoded pages are compact, and thus more easily transmitted over today's slow wireless data connections. In addition, the WAP protocol is distinct from the carrier technology it runs on. As a result, WAP can run on a range of devices in environments from Short Messaging Service and CDPD, the cellular data protocol, to the CDMA and GSM voice transmission protocols. As what the WAP Forum hopes will be a de facto standard, WAP will allow vendors to avoid a morass of proprietary standards that may not be compatible or even interoperable.

WAP phones have been promised for several years, but only began to appear several months ago. On the service side, AT&T's WAP-enabled PocketNet service was rolled out in January, and Verizon's Mobile Web debuted in May. BT Cellnet announced the U.K.'s first WAP services using Nokia and Ericsson phones in January 2000.

I can't imagine there's a single reader of this column who would dispute the business value of Web connectivity on the run. Middleware to connect wireless networks to back-end CRM, ERP and supply chain management systems is proliferating these days, seemingly at a faster rate than the wireless devices themselves. That means a salesperson could use his or her phone at a customer site to update pricing, confirm inventory availability and place an order. Depending on the nature of the in-office systems, all this could be done in real time.

Zona projects a staged adoption of WAP by businesses. "We foresee a long-term impact on behavior that closely mirrors the waves of integration observed through the initial introduction of the Internet into people's lives. People begin relating to their cell phones and PDAs for informational purposes, like stock market quotes before gradually shifting to purchases, in what some have dubbed 'm-commerce,' for mobile commerce."

WAP faces several hurdles to widespread adoption, though. One is the requirement that a page be translated into WML, which means companies must produce an additional version of each Web page they want to be easily accessible from a wireless device. Another is that the licensing status of the WAP browser remains unclear in the wake of a claim by Geoworks that a 1994 patent covers some of the WAP display technology. The claim is being contested in court by Phone.com, but the possibility that use of the WAP browser could expose companies to claims for license fees has led to some hesitation.

Then there's iMode, the wireless Web service offered by the Japanese phone company NTT DoCoMo, which is wildly popular in Japan. It technically requires its own proprietary markup language, but in fact can more or less read any Web page, giving it a much broader reach than WAP. Its supporters argue that iMode is also faster, simpler and less expensive than WAP.

iMode currently is available only in Japan, and its proprietary technology requires compatible handsets. That would seem to count as several strikes against it as a WAP competitor. But in May, NTT DoCoMo introduced an English language version, leading some analysts to warn that iMode could show up in the U.S. shortly. Some late summer press reports had the company planning to purchase a stake in the joint venture between BellSouth and SBC Communications as well as Verio Communications, an Internet service provider.

Ironically, the promised migration to much faster third-generation wireless transmission technology may obviate the need for either solution. If sufficient bandwidth is available, goes the argument, why bother with the additional processing needed to thin Web pages down or with proprietary technology? If the network is fast enough, plain old TCP/IP ought to do the job.

The wireless realm has reversed the usual pattern of business adoption: The availability of wireless business tools has been driven by consumer interest in the devices. And, as the Zona paper summarizes the situation, "Consumers will likely take hold of whatever wireless Internet solution first appears and is successful, providing fertile ground for possible WAP alternatives in the U.S. However, Americans are also taking much longer to use cell phones and other wireless devices than either Europe or Asia, which might mean that the market will wait until WAP begins to bloom."

This uncertainty makes it hard to plan for wise investments in business tools. But that's what makes building a business a challenge, right?

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