IT has been a tough year for Telcos. Despite starry-eyed predictions of a billion mobile Internet subscribers by 2004, users have turned their back on WAP and the forecast growth of handsets Europe, the United States and Australia has slowed markedly.
Ericsson has pulled out of handset manufacture altogether. Even the world market leader, Nokia, has struggled and is reported to be considering outsourcing its manufacturing in the future.
WAP has been criticised as
over-hyped and underperforming. Consumers have found it hard to read the WAP applications on small mobile LCDs and have rebelled against the cost of connecting to a data service that operates at a pedestrian 9,600 bits per second. By comparison SMS (short message service) has boomed despite its clumsy input and 160 character limitation. There are an estimated 11 million mobile phone subscribers in Australia sending about 150 million SMS messages a month, but only about 40,000 of those subscribers are active WAP users.
APT Strategies blames much of the problem on lack of education and says its survey of 1,000 Australian Internet users who own a mobile phone shows that 45 per cent do not understand the difference between WAP and SMS. According to APT chief analyst, Marc Phillips, Australian telecommunications carriers are assuming that our tech-savvy nation, where one in two people own a mobile phone, understand WAP and itsofferings. Yet 45 per cent of Australians don't understand wireless Internet, which data services are available and what the benefits actually are.
Graham Merrett, who heads wireless service provider BlueSkyFrog, says WAP's failure is more than just lack of education. Much of the problem is its lack of usability, as well as expense. He sums up the reason for SMS's success in a couple of words: "It works."
Despite the tough economic
conditions, BSF has recorded remarkable growth. Over the past 12 months it has signed 1 million new subscribers boasting about 1,500,000 registered users who pay the equivalent of 20 cents for every Internet-to-phone SMS message and up to $2.20 for every new ring tone they download.
By comparison, Australia's largest non-Telco WAP service provider has only about 8,000 registered WAP users.
Merrett says there is no real growth in WAP to encourage people to develop applications and there are no real good hard revenue models yet.
He describes the user experience as "slow and painful and the cost makes it hurt even more."
Nevertheless, he believes WAP can survive and the investment put into developing WAP content should not be lost if the public embraces GPRS (general packet radio service) technology.
GPRS is available in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and provides data speeds up to about 50 kilobits per second.
"My experience of WAP over GPRS has been a very positive one. A lot of the problems we have had with WAP over a regular GSM connection have gone away because we have a much quicker connection and we are only being billed for the data we use, rather than for the time it takes to download it." (Telstra charges 22 cents per session plus a download fee of 2.2 cents a kilobyte for the first 200 kb and then 1.1cents per kb from then on)Unlike SMS which BSF is now rolling out to the reseller channel there still is no real revenue model for the WAP market.
"Businesses are starting to request SMS type services for their own customer base or internal use, so we have bundled a bunch of sensible commercial services that can be used. Rather than take it to the market ourselves, we have developed a reseller model enabling a company that may have a customer to offer the bundle as a value added service."
Sydney-based iTouch offers similar services to BlueSkyFrog and is one of Australia's biggest WAP developers. It too has had problems finding a revenue model for WAP.
A major part of iTouch's business is providing mobile wireless solutions to corporate clients through the use of PDA's, but it prefers SMS and its own solutions over WAP.iTouch managing director Clifford Rosenberg says corporate SMS is huge.
"Companies are waking up to the fact that SMS can replace pagers and it is cheap, instantaneous and goes direct to your mobile phone. It is a great messaging solution. It is far cheaper than making phone calls and you can contact 2000 people in one shot without any hassle.
"WAP allows you to retrieve corporate email, but you are limited by the speed of the GSM network and you cannot read your attachments. WAP is kind of fun, but I am not sure it can be considered a serious messaging application. We can create templates for use on PDA, which we can wirelessly connect you to your intranet and that is a far better way than going through WAP," he says.
Nagaraja Srivatsan, senior vice-
president, project solutions group, Silverline Technologies, is not willing to write WAP off.
"Although WAP may have limitations, it does not mean that it should be abandoned. WAP is the stepping stone to the mobile Internet and will mould any future mobile technology standard. It has a valid role to play and needs to be taken into consideration with all the other protocols you need to support past, present and future," he says.
"As with any new technology, users must see real value from using their devices. We counsel our clients to focus on mobile applications that deliver immediate value to their mobile users. We believe that mobile enablement is different from Web enablement and classify mobile applications by their value to their end user, as well as to the enterprise," says Srivatson.
Andrew McLorinan, Ericsson's
marketing manager for wireless internet applications, says WAP has given people some false expectations.
"The mobile Internet is made up of several different elements. You need to have an application environment, operating systems, a network, content applications and browsers. WAP was only intended to address part of that solution.
It is not the network itself. It is the browser mark-up language and the application framework."McLorinan says the introduction of high speed packetised networks, such as GPRS, and eventually 3G (third generation), will make WAP much more acceptable.
"In Japan, where they have been using a packet network for a long time, they have 30 million mobile Internet customers. A very high proportion of them are young people and a very high proportion of their spend is on entertainment. The Japanese telcos have figured out a service offering attractive to content provider as well as the network operator, and that is something missing in Australia.
"If you consider that there are 700 to 800 million mobile phone subscribers in the world, and you believe - as you should - phones on average are replaced with new ones with more features every 18 months, it is likely the next ones they get will have the packet capability that will lead to much greater usage of WAP," he says.
Analysts, such as IDC, Gartner and Forrester remain bullish about the future for the mobile Internet. Mobile phone companies will continue to sell WAP enabled mobile phones. All that is missing is public acceptance and a revenue model, anyone other than the telcos can take advantage of.