On the edge with WAP

Wireless access protocol (WAP) is coming on strong in the race to provide Internet content via small-screen, wireless devices.

By Lynn Haber | Posted Jul 13, 2000
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WAP is an open, global specification designed to empower mobile users with wireless devices by giving them the ability to easily interact with information and services. The beauty of WAP, according to industry participants, is that it delivers Internet content in a format that fits small screen devices and runs more efficiently over lower-speed links. This article will introduce you to this exciting, rapidly expanding technology.

Using is believing

"The missing piece in making the business case for wireless Internet is compelling content. Weather reports and astrological readings are slim pickings for road warriors. "

For companies like J.P. Morgan & Co. Inc., the future is now. While most firms only dream of deploying wireless Internet applications, the New York-based financial services company is putting this bleeding-edge technology in the hands of its institutional clients today.

In fact, executives at Bartlesville, Okla.-based Phillips Petroleum Company were recently among the first users of SynDirect Wireless, J.P. Morgan's wireless communication platform for bond issuers and investors. Using Palm VII Handheld Connected Organizers in the U.S., or WAP-enabled cellular telephones in the U.K., Phillips executives were able to get immediate market feedback on a $2.5 billion securities offering during a 10-day promotional road show. Wireless Internet access on these small devices literally put valuable information into the hands of Phillips senior management who were then able to tailor and modify their investor presentations accordingly.

"The wireless access protocol (WAP) allows us to offer value to two major constituents--the issuers of securities, or the corporations, and the buyers, or investors," says Dave Olsen, head of electronic syndication at J.P. Morgan. A third group, J.P. Morgan internal users, such as bankers and salespeople, also have access to the wireless application, meaning they never miss a beat when it comes to accessing job-critical information whether in the office or on the road.

In the past, Phillips executives doing a similar road show would have had to call back to company headquarters to get an update on market reaction. Then, they'd hope that they could reach a trader and get general statements, rather than details about investors reaction to the issuing of a bond. "With our SynDirect wireless application the level of transparency and immediacy of access to information is truly amazing," adds Olsen.

WAP yields information anywhere, anytime

Mobility and the Internet are rapidly converging, which is why WAP is fast becoming an industry standard and the main contender for wireless Internet access. However, WAP is still in its infancy and the subject of more hype than reality. Still, enterprises are tuning into the buzz on WAP and wondering how wireless Internet applications can add value to conducting business.

After all, access to business information anytime, anywhere has been a business mantra for several years now. In some industries, and in some corporate departments, creating an IT infrastructure that supports a mobile workforce is considered a competitive business advantage.

Reportedly, WAP takes mobility as we know it today, a step further, as J.P. Morgan's wireless application proves. WAP proponents boast that with the development of WAP-enabled services and applications, users will have to reach no further than their pocket to connect easily to the Internet or a corporate intranet or extranet at the push of a button. Most of today's wireless communications--among corporate types, this occurs with the renegade usage of pagers, Palm Pilots, and cell phones--has been limited to voice and one-way text transmissions.

Services benefit from WAP technology

The type of services that can benefit from WAP technology are just beginning to be understood. However, early WAP services--which primarily target the consumer market--allow users to access information from a number of providers for news, shopping, financial data, weather, travel, directory services, and online brokerages, for example.

Coming down the pike, some interesting visions for enterprise wireless applications are in the works. These applications include customer care and provisioning, message notification, call management, e-mail, telephone value-added services and unified messaging, e-commerce, and a myriad of intranet applications.

For some companies, reality bites sooner than later. Overseas, sales staff at Ireland-based Memorex Telex Ltd., a systems integration firm, recently began using WAP technology to access and update their customer management system while on the road or working remotely, turning their telephones into a valuable business tool. The wireless Internet solution is the work of a number of players including Esat Digifone, a European mobile phone operator and eWare Ltd., the Dublin-based provider of software solutions for e-CRM (Customer Relationship Management).

A work in progress

Bumps in the road

There's no refuting the fact that wireless Internet and WAP have legs in the marketplace, and that momentum for this new worldwide industry standard continues to build. However, more than one hurdle lies in the WAP path.

For example, we must align reality to hype. The truth is that the WAP experience today is a far cry from a wired Internet experience. It doesn't include color, graphics, or video. In fact, content delivery is at a mere 9.6Kbps. And, the ability to deliver more compelling content won't be feasible until the carriers upgrade their networks--according to industry watchers, speeds of 64Kbps should be possible by year end. Expect continued upgrades in the future.

Given the dual limitations of network speed and device screen size, application developers are challenged to deliver content for the functionality of the device and mobility. "What we found challenging was getting the application business logic in place to display it on a challenging piece of real estate," says Dave Olsen, head of electronic syndication at New York-based J.P. Morgan & Co. Inc., one of the first financial institutions to roll out a WAP-enabled application to institutional clients.

Security, or lack thereof, is currently another industry concern. According to Michele MacKenzie, consultant with London-based market research firm Ovum Ltd., given the fact that there's no end-to-end security in WAP, the issue can be a real show stopper. "E-commerce applications will require that more work be done in the area of security," she says.

WAP does include a specification called wireless transport layer security (WTLS) which, reportedly, implements options for authentication and encryption and is optimized for use in the mobile environment. The WAP Forum also continues to do work in this area.

Wireless application developers at J.P. Morgan report that WAP encryption is very robust and secure. However, the firm uses additional security mechanisms in its SynDirect wireless application, according to Olsen.

Last but not least is politics. Although every vendor of any clout is a member of the WAP Forum, what they're saying and what they're doing with WAP may be two different things. Microsoft, for example, is reportedly waffling on WAP. According to MacKenzie, the company has declared its support for an HTML microbrowser and is hedging its bets by backing a dual-mode microbrowser--HTML and WML. The company is also betting on XML as the long-term browser winner, noting that it expects to see wireless extensions to XML.

Many industry players believe that WAP will eventually embrace XML, which is considered a more robust browser--something WAP needs in order to meet the needs of enterprise users.

Another political-legal matter is the question of WAP Forum members charging fees for technology they contribute to the WAP specification. WAP gateway vendor Phone.com Inc. and GeoWorks Inc. are currently embroiled in a lawsuit over this very matter. (Simply put, in the lawsuit, Phone.com contends that its products do not infringe a patent held by GeoWorks.)

Tom Carlin, product manager at Art Technology Group Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that makes WAP servers, says his company has been notified that it may be required to pay licensing fees as well, adding that the company is currently investigating the matter. In general, he says he believes that vendor issues such as this one present barriers to advancing technology and go against the grain of having industry standards in the first place. However, the as-of-yet unresolved lawsuit and question of fees isn't slowing ATG's ventures in the wireless Internet space, he notes.

While not commenting directly on the Phone.com/GeoWorks case, Dan MacDonald, vice president of marketing at Helsinki, Finland-based Nokia Corp., believes that industry infighting does have the potential to slow down the wireless Internet. Still, he and Carlin are in agreement--the WAP initiative is too strong to be thrown off track.

The WAP protocol continues to be developed by the WAP Forum, an industry association made up of some 300 members. According to the WAP Forum, its membership represents over 95% of the global handset market, carriers with more than 100 million subscribers, leading infrastructure providers, software developers, and other organizations providing solutions to the wireless industry. WAP v1.1 was released in June 1999; the newest ratified version of WAP is v1.2.

As mentioned earlier, WAP provides Internet content in a format that fits small-screen devices and that runs efficiently over lower-speed links. Using Wireless Mark-up Language (WML), WAP strips out graphical and color content, which is not suitable for these small-screen devices, and leaves only text-based information. Handsets contain a microbrowser, which is a lite version of a desktop browser. WML conforms with Internet standards and is, reportedly, very similar to HTML, which is used to create pages for the Web. According to the WAP Forum, WML is also fully compliant with XML rules.

J.P. Morgan's Olsen notes that the WAP application development was an integral part of the company's SynDirect Web development effort, and didn't require much of a language learning curve. The wireless application, he says, "was not a big integration effort nor was it enormously costly to produce."

See how it grows

Industry acceptance and deployment of WAP in the enterprise environment is described as occurring in three phases--which differ, time-wise, between the U.S. and Europe. Dan MacDonald, vice president of marketing at Nokia Corp., of Helsinki, Finland, outlines those phases as follows: I-education and awareness; II-early adopter; and III, widespread business enabler.

"In the U.S., we're in Phase I, where enterprises want to know the business value of WAP," he explains. He expects that the education and awareness-raising process will continue through most of 2000. Europe, he notes, has already moved into Phase II. "In Europe, hundreds of companies are piloting systems," he says. In Phase III, partnerships between ISVs, platform vendors, and WAP providers will result in the shipment of WAP technology with applications. Again, expect to see Phase III come to fruition in Europe first, followed by the U.S.

Europeans take the lead in mobile communications due to the fact that carriers in Europe established network coverage ahead of their counterparts in the U.S.; today, they're looking to add features to their network offerings. In the U.S., by contrast, carriers such as AT&T and Sprint are still establishing a mobile network footprint and haven't aggressively gone down the network features trail, which includes wireless Internet.

Additionally, the fact that most of Europe uses a single commercial network called GSM for mobile telephony, whereas the U.S. has a hodge-podge of networks technologies for wireless--CDMA, GSM, and TDMA--has enabled more rapid development of mobile wireless abroad. That's not to say that U.S. carriers (such as AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless) aren't getting their feet wet with WAP and wireless Internet, because they are. In fact, according to Gartner's Redman, WAP services are being offered, and users can visit hundreds of WAP sites.

He expects that by year-end, 70% of mobile telephones will have a WAP browser and enable access to these wireless Internet services. Most new cellular telephones from vendors such as Ericsson, Motorola Inc., Nokia, and Qualcomm, to name several, offer WAP browsers that are v.1.1 compatible. Product availability and shipments in the U.S. vary. "This year, the biggest limitation to wireless Internet will be the availability of WAP-enabled devices," says John Maxwell Hobbs, head of creative development at Ericsson's CyberLab in New York. Shipments and product availability is expected to improve later this year.

According to Gartner, more than one billion mobile devices will be used in 2003. In less than two years, almost all new mobile devices sold are expected to be Web-enabled.

Making the business case

Although the first target for WAP products and services is the consumer marketplace, the enterprise market is viewed as the bigger prize by industry players. "That's where we'll see WAP take off in a bigger way," says MacDonald. WAP, he points out, will allow companies to give employees access to the same information that's available to them in the wired world--the rich repositories of information sitting on corporate intranets.

In an industry that seems to move faster than the speed of light it seems like only yesterday that the mobile computer industry was singing the same praises of mobility only the gear was different--a notebook computer and modem. Are laptops headed to the dust bin? Not quite, says Redman. "Mobile professionals and salespeople, for example, will still carry laptops but they don't provide real-time information," he says. "It's much easier to pull out a telephone or other small wireless device and more beneficial to get information in real-time," he adds.

The missing piece in making the business case for wireless Internet is compelling content. Weather reports and astrological readings are slim pickings for road warriors. Industry analysts contend that a killer application for wireless will be messaging. "Email is mission critical at most companies," says Redman, bypassing and is bypassing voice communications in importance. Messaging and message management add great value to wireless Internet and play to the strengths of mobility.

Many vendors are making investments in WAP today. Oracle Corp., for example, is trying to crack to enterprise wireless market. "We're trying to provide that killer enterprise mobile portal," says Yacob Christfort, CTO and vice president for product development at OracleMobile. The company's goal is to extend server applications and data to mobile devices regardless of network connectivity.

To make wireless Internet a reality, you need WML, a WAP server, and a gateway to access applications. A number of vendors are offering servers and gateways, and companies such as Nokia and Ericsson offer training courses for WAP developers.

Today, there's no such thing as shrink-wrapped WAP applications, so enterprises looking to jump-start wireless Internet application development will have to serve up and integrate their own applications. MacDonald, estimates that companies can expect to pay somewhere between $500-$1,000 to develop homegrown WAP applications today.

Adding more overhead to the IT infrastructure is never an easy proposition for corporate decision makers. So, whether businesses jump on the WAP bandwagon today or tomorrow, it's most important that they become educated about wireless Internet. Then, and only then, will companies understand where this latest mobile technology will add the most value.

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