WAP Browser: Yea or Nay?

It's not entirely clear why WAP (wireless application protocol) is so successful in Europe yet is being shot down by many American industry leaders before it has even had time to establish a toehold. Only time will tell if these naysayers are accurate with their doomsday predictions. However, since the technology is available and WAP-enabled products are now hitting the U.S. market, you should consider what to expect from the so-called wireless Internet in your hand.

WAP carries some limitations compared to PDAs (personal digital assistants) or notebooks. Notebooks provide large screens, brilliant color and low-latency wireless connections. Today's PDAs have increasingly larger screens, which means you can receive a full page of data, with decent latency and graphics, in the palm of your hand.

WAP's biggest advantage is that it offers both voice and data, though with extremely minimal screen sizes and high latency with no graphics.

Time Warp
One analyst provided the true reality check: "WAP browsing today is like using a BBS (Bulletin Board System) 10 years ago. Back then, users were satisfied with DOS/character-based software, 14.4Kbps (kilobits per second) modems or slower, monochrome monitors and single tasking. It was all they knew. [However,] people's expectations for wireless Internet are always going to be based on their wired desktop experience, which, to the chagrin of the carriers, is high speed with lots of color graphics."

WAP's limitations are a dilemma for large, national PCS carriers. On the one hand, wireless Internet sounds sexy to investors, who are tired of low dividends and poor profits. Sprint, ahead of the pack with its Wireless Web offerings, is estimated to have 100,000 customers signed up for circuit-switched CDMA (code division multiple access) service in which users pay by the minute, whether they're tethered to a notebook or PDA or using their phones' WAP browser. PCS carriers are reluctant to bring expensive phones to market, because they can't get enough volume with the more expensive phones like the Neopoint 1000 and Qualcomm PDQ. However, the WAP-enabled Ericsson LX-280 and the Nokia 7160 are good values for $100 to $200.

AT&T just introduced its consumer version of Digital Pocketnet on the Ericsson LX280, a $99 phone with a WAP browser, and lowered the price of its Mitsubishi T250 to $199. While using the CDPD (cellular digital packet data) network rather than the circuit-switched TDMA (time division multiple access) network, AT&T offers a lower price point than Sprint, starting at $6.99 per month with purchase of its Digital One Rate plan. Verizon Wireless (formerly AirTouch Cellular, Bell Atlantic Mobile and PrimeCo) offers several circuit-switched CDMA plans for both tethered and WAP phones. GSM (global system for mobile communications) carriers are just getting into the game now, and we should see some products and services later this year from carriers such as Voicestream and Pacific Bell Wireless.

Wireless data carriers are fighting back, too. The Palm VII service offered by BellSouth Wireless is competing directly with OmniSky's partnership with AT&T Wireless' CDPD service. Palm.net offers Web clipping through its gateway portals, which have been in business for more than a year. OmniSky is fairly new, but its profits are also made by having customers visit the sites that have contracted with the carrier's portals.

The key to user satisfaction is keeping down the amount of traffic going to and from the portals. Since WAP is not true Web browsing, traffic is held to a few bytes, both forward and reverse. This increases network capacity, which is extremely important. If too many users sign up and use the service at a particular time--called "busy hour" in telephony lingo--the network gets bottlenecked quite quickly. Carriers typically take 12 to 18 months to build out network elements, including the inter-working frame (part of the CDMA/TDMA switch). Network engineers can't always react to this capacity problem in time. Bottom line: This will most likely create a bad user experience.

It's anyone's guess how carriers and phone manufacturers researched users' WAP expectations. Most industry experts (who declined to be identified) believe that WAP is more hype than hip. They should wait for the U.S. marketplace to mature to see if it will gain enough momentum to compete with the high-use countries. Also, technology changes so rapidly that lower-priced Smartphones (PDAs melded with PCS phones) must arrive sooner rather than later. It may be a waiting game for a while, but like the saying goes: The best things (might) come to those who wait.

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