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WAP l has many shortcomings, and the prospect for their resolution is Not particularly hopeful, but speakers at the first Wrox Professional Wireless Developer Conference in Amsterdam this week painted an interesting picture of the wireless computing future. The collective opinion was that with the coming of WAP 1.2, there will be reasonable security for online purchases and information exchange in Europe.

In Japan, buying items like cinema tickets trough Net-enabled phones is already commonplace, and accounts for a healthy percentage of total sales in some areas. NTT DoCoMo's i-mode system, which is based on a scaled-down version of HTML, serves an estimated 10 million Japanese users already and the company is now looking to enter the European market. At the same time some WAP vendors are building bridgeheads in Japan, where DoCoMo simply lacks sufficient bandwidth to serve all comers. Eventually, or so we're told, the i-mode standard is to merge into WAP.

As the Japanese have shown, mobile ecommerce (or m-commerce as the current buzzword goes) has a place in a market where PDAs and mobile phones converge. Decent screen sizes for conducting WAP transactions are a next step, with several feature-rich devices currently in the pipeline. After many delays, they should find their way into the market over the coming year.

Slugging it out in the palmtop market

The battle of the operating systems for these geekish toys (fought between the Palm OS, Microsoft's PocketPC-branded Windows CE, and Symbian's EPOC) will be interesting to watch. Palm has several things going for it - a huge installed base, cool add-on gadgets such as fold-out keyboards and clip-on cameras, and what still looks to be the easiest and most intuitive user interface. But the next EPOC release, demonstrated in action at the conference, promises well-integrated access to sexy functionality like telephony (tap here to call this person, here to send an SMS message), GPS, and Bluetooth connectivity. Sun will also be there with its MExE Java environment (which has already found its way into the next generation of i-mode phones), but not directly as a competitor to these products.

So where does this leave palmtops based on Microsoft's Windows CE (recently re-branded as PocketPC)? This platform has never really caught on: the interface was originally designed more to resemble Windows than to work well on small form factors. Another disadvantage was that the system's hardware requirements forced prices to unreasonable levels, keeping economies of scale from kicking in as they have with the PC.

Things have changed. With the PocketPC name comes a leaner, more palmtop-oriented GUI. In the meantime, affordable devices look set to catch up with CE's hardware requirements as integration with mobile phones drives both production volumes and device value to the customer.

But now that CE has made its bed, will there be any room left for it to lie in? Designed in the USA where mobile phones have met with less enthusiasm (due in part, no doubt, to subscribers paying for incoming phone calls as well as the ones they initiate), your typical PocketPC device lacks exactly this integrated voice telephony that will make its kin so popular and affordable.

Palm too has been dragging its feet on this front but itmay be able to survive in the lower price segment for some time due to its enormous popularity and simplicity.

It should not be impossible for either Microsoft or Palm to integrate telephony as a required feature for PocketPC devices (CE phones are nothing new), but a public perception of the behemoth trailing behind in this regard can't be good for business. This perception could be fueled by Microsoft's major competitors in these markets work on SyncML, a common data synchronization standard that will enhance compatibility between all kinds of wireless devices, except ones based on Microsoft operating systems.

Is WAP likely to fragment?
At first glance, the WAP standard looks like a prime candidate for fragmentation. It is geared towards a wide variety of devices with very different, very minimal capabilities and there will always be some incentive for manufacturers to create their own proprietary extensions that will make their products look better than vanilla standard devices.

WML, the language used for writing WAP pages, is supposed to be more semantics-oriented than HTML, but HTML is not a presentation-oriented language by birth. Starting with Netscape, the major players in the Web browser market extended (and some would say perverted) the standard to allow for more precise, but often browser-specific, control over the appearance of the resulting pages.

So what's to stop a similar shift from occurring with WAP? If vendors do start to diverge on device-specific optimisation, dominant devices will tend to push out less well-known ones along with the flexibility that was built in to cater for them. Fortunately, phone and PDA vendors currently don't seem to see much reason for encouraging the large-scale development of content specifically for their own devices.

What may save the world here is the rapid introduction of new wireless toys, since a vendor nurturing optimisation against competitors may at the same time be sabotaging its own next-generation device. There may be some pressure towards raising the minimum device requirements by vendors of more advanced devices, but that would stifle development of even smaller and niftier devices.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is more fine-grained specification of standard device profiles, eg. a number of standard screen sizes. This could be economically attractive as a way of reducing the number of parts to be manufactured in the overheated market for LCD displays, where capacity planning for the various differently equipped end-products is a serious problem.

Are we going to buy it?
If it all catches on, we may be looking at a future where society consists of three kinds of people: those with dinky little Internet phones; those with an additional Palm; and those with fully-fledged communicator-class devices that integrate both functions under EPOC.

Service providers may even give some devices away free to increase usage of their dearly-bought transmission frequencies, and push WAP advertisements to their defenceless subscribers to recoup part of the costs. WAP allows for this, but little thought is being given to the customer's ability to preserve privacy while using digital wireless services.

For any of this to become reality, however, several things will need to change. Development systems for WAP have a long way to go yet, and this may become the largest single obstacle to m-commerce from the technical point of view. From the consumer side, something will need to be done about the mistaken impression, remorselessly fueled by overeager manufacturers, that WAP phones will get you on the Internet - which to the public of course, quite literally, means the Web.

The public were once led to believe that they would be able to fire up their mobiles and view their favourite Web sites in their full unadulterated glory. They may well decide to lynch those responsible and call it a day. ®

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