It is important to remember that normal Web sites on the World Wide Web cannot be viewed using a handset because of the screen size and the limited rate at which data can be received. The technology that links the mobile phone to the Internet is called wireless application protocol (WAP). WAP sites are specifically designed to be viewed via mobile phones and the world of such sites is called mobile Internet.
WAP is a standard that has been developed by a consortium of mobile telephone companies that have been working together since 1997 and have published a series of technical documents giving definitions and substantial details of the protocol that has got widespread backing from the industry.
Such a common protocol is considered necessary in order to give a cross-platform accessibility. Thus, it does not matter what brand your mobile phone is of—as long as it is WAP-enabled—you can use all features. This is true for at least 95 per cent of mobile phones, though there are some models that will work only in specific geographical areas and it is important to check with the service providers about the availability of the phone.
Does this mean that
your regular mobile phone becomes "ordinary" now?
Unfortunately, yes. Most of the mobile phones are not WAP-enabled and,
thus, a vast majority of mobile phone users will have to upgrade their
phones. At the same time, the good news is that WAP enabled phones are
no longer as costly as they were some time ago.
Now that you have a WAP phone, what happens next? It’s fairly miraculous, notwithstanding the limitations that the WAP phone faces—low-power processors, tiny amounts of RAM, and small screens. Basically, the screen of your mobile phone becomes like your computer’s monitor and your mobile handles both the processing and connectivity aspects of getting you on to the Internet.
The WAP mobile phone software, known as a micro browser, allows you access to the Internet. The micro browser reads Web pages written in WML (more on that further on), which are text only and are designed to be viewed on a small screen. WAP-enabled Internet is called mobile Internet and at present only a fraction of the Web sites on the WWW are WAP sites, though it is growing every day.
Since mobile phones operate at a power that is a fraction of that of the computers, a language and environment has been created in order to optimise the Internet experience for such phones. Incidentally, this can also be used for other small devices like personal digital assistants.
Overall, the wireless application environment also includes the wireless telephony application interface that provides a programming interface to telephones for initiating calls, sending text messages, and other networking capability. This is what most of the mobile users are familiar with because they might have been using the short message service (SMS) facility for a while now.
SMS messages are typically under 160 characters and can be sent from one mobile to another anywhere in the world. They have the advantage of being unobtrusive as well as cheap (between Rs 1 to 1.50 per message).
The parallels with the Internet abound. A WAP’s session layer is the Wireless Session Protocol (WSP). WSP is the equivalent to HTTP for WAP browsers. WAP involves browsers and servers just like the World Wide Web. The Internet protocol, HTTP, is not seen as a practical choice for WAP because of its relative inefficiency on the wire. WSP conserves precious bandwidth on wireless links. The typical data speed through digital cellular networks is a fraction of the speed of a hard-wired Internet connection.
Actually both have their different spheres of usage; WSP works with relatively compact binary data whereas HTTP works mainly with text data. In effect, WAP is a distant cousin of HTML.
What do you do with WAP?
WAP-optimised sites handle much better than regular (HTML) Web sites on mobile phones because they have been specifically created for the mobiles and do not have the bells and whistles that HTML sites have. To answer the question we posed earlier, what you do with WAP is similar to what you do with the HTML sites; use the device, the mobile phone in this case, to access a vast world of information and entertainment. Of course, there are limitations in the case of WAP, but then there is the convenience of mobility.
Actually, in order to get a preview of what the world of WAP, you can download one of the many WAP emulator software on to your PC, available freely on the Internet, and see how you react to the experience. Two of the most commonly used WAP emulators are Deck-it WAP Previewer 1.0.4 (freeware) and WinWAP Pro 188.8.131.52 (shareware). Both are less that 2 MB and can thus be downloaded without taking too much time. These software show Web sites as they would appear on a WAP mobile phone.
One of the questions asked in our bandwidth-starved nation is: How fast is the WAP experience. Not fast enough, most industry specialists contend, since, according to them, for the WAP browsers to reach the performance levels experienced with the HTML browsers, a speed of 57 Kbps is necessary. In most of the world, including India, the speed of data transfer is 9.6 Kbps, which is the maximum that can be carried on the global system for mobile communication (GSM) that is used at present. This speed is sufficient for transfer of data from the Internet to the WAP phone.
In certain places, with technologies like General Packet Radio Services and i-mode, the speed is as much as 19.2 Kbps. It would, however, be unfair to contrast it with the slowest speed of a regular telephonic dial-up connection, which is 14 Kbps, though even in Chandigarh it is often 28 Kbps or more, which seems slow when you access picture-rich sites. Inherently, WAP sites are text-rich—the way they work is quite different, and in a lot of ways, much more efficient for the medium.
However, it is important to bear in mind that even in advanced countries like the USA, a WAP connection is always slower than a dial-up connection, and one should not look for parity. However, there are predictions that in the next few years, wireless phones will be developed that will have speeds of up to 2 Mbps, which is more than 100 times faster than current speeds. Such a fast rate of transfer of data would support sophisticated features like video calling.
Whenever any new technology or application is introduced, you often ask: How useful is it? The answer to this question would be: "It all depends on what you want to do." In case you want information while you are on the move, you need WAP. All WAP-enabled phones can connect you to news sites that give current news, and, in fact, most of the cell phone providers have tie-ups with local and global news providers. As with the Internet, there is a paucity of India-specific content, though because of the initiative taken by various service providers, there is interesting city-specific information available.
But most users will say that such news was available earlier also. It was, through SMS. However, there are differences. SMS typically provided news four times a day and that too within the limitation of 160 characters per message. Thus in case you wanted to send a longer communication, it came as multiple messages. With WAP, you can scroll down an important news without a problem and keep yourself updated with the latest in the stock markets, etc.
By far, the most popular service on mobile Internet is e-mail, which allows you to get and send e-mails on your mobile phone.
Typically, the service provider also has a local menu of value-added services and gives localised content in order to allow you to shop, find restaurants, astrologers, banks, read jokes, get cinema listings, etc. They also list emergency numbers and give other information.
Where can I WAP?
Orange in Mumbai in early 2000 introduced mobile Internet in India. BPL, Mumbai, Essar, Delhi, and Spice, Kolkata, followed. Actually, today, all operators in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and a few circle operators are providing WAP services in India. Chandigarh is the latest city to have this facility.
You have to remember, however, that the WAP service is operator specific and even if you have roaming access, you may not be able to get Internet access outside the area of operations for the WAP service provider. Also, you need to configure the phone to the specifications of the service provider. In effect, it is access to the Internet "anytime, anywhere," with the rider, "within my network."
A value-added feature with enormous potential is location-based information (LBS). It would definitely show the strengths of mobile technologies over fixed computers, i.e., that of location-specific information.
The quest for the LBS killer application has begun and it could be something that gives directions, is a city guide or even helps with shopping. In effect you would get the information about a restaurant or an ATM nearest to you rather than having to scroll through a database.
Such services work by identifying the mobile phone user’s location within the mobile phone cell area. This is matched with the postcode and a directory produces a list of the closest relevant businesses in the nominated postal code or PIN area. This kind of service would require major upgrades in networks, hardware and software, but this is a promise for the future.
Because of the nature of the medium and the limitations of the devices and networks, there are inherent limitations in using WAP. It is a text-rich service, and WAP-enabled sites are but a fraction of the WWW. Also, there are times when you lose your Net connection, just as you do through regular phone services.
For most people, a major limitation is that the phones they bought some time ago will not work. In order to use WAP, you need a WAP phone, though the good news is that such phones are quite cheap. People who buy a new phone can get a WAP-enabled one without much additional expenditure.
One of the most irritating things about mobile phones for browsing is keying in anything, as the keypad is very limited. You might seriously consider message pads that come as accessories—commonly used for chatting—to make your experience of inputting the matter somewhat less unpleasant.
WAP has become popular the world over. As on May 27, 2001, NTT DoCoMo, Japan’s leading mobile operator, had over 23 lakh subscribers on i-mode (it’s own version of WAP).
While both WAP and i-mode deliver cut-down Web pages to mobile devices, i.e., to provide the same service, they are incompatible with each other and each has its advantages and disadvantages. According to experts, i-mode is a simpler solution and is based on HTML. This makes it more convenient to convert content from Web sites for viewing on smaller screens. While WAP is designed for third-generation wireless networks, i-mode is being used on second-generation networks. Till now, i-mode is very popular in Japan while WAP is used in the rest of the world.
According to a recent study conducted by a leading Asian operator, it is expected that WAP penetration as a percentage of total subscriber base in 2001 will be as high as 80 per cent in a country like Singapore to 66 per cent in S. Korea and 38 per cent in Australia. In India, it is expected that this ratio will be nearly at 7-8 per cent and will grow sharply as prices of WAP handsets reduce and newer and better quality of WAP-enabled handsets are introduced, according to industry sources.
So, are you going to get the Web in your pocket?
JAPANESE mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc launched a trial third-generation service last week, securing its place as frontrunner in the race to provide services such as video-conferencing and fast Net access on mobile phones.
Declaring that 3G would "write a new page for mobile communications in the 21st century," DoCoMo President Keiji Tachikawa formally launched the trial for a select group of 3,300 corporate and individual users, although another 1,200 will have to wait a month for the showcase videophone model.
"With the launch of 3G services, we are adding features such as high-speed Internet access and video-conferencing," he told a group of business partners, customers and reporters.
The trial is a chance for DoCoMo to iron out any problems with the service ahead of its full launch in October and is likely to be keenly watched by foreign carriers who have invested heavily in the still unproven technology.
Yoshihiro Fujita, 28, said that he was looking forward to showing off his sleek silver 3G phone, which boasts a bright colour screen, folds in half and has no protruding antenna. The sound quality matches fixed line phones.
"It’s pretty cool," Fujita told Reuters, who works at a software company. "Everyone in my office applied for one but I was the only one who got one."
DoCoMo Japan’s top mobile operator with 62 per cent of the market received more than 1,47,000 applications for the trial service, the same number of subscribers that it expects to sign up by March 2002.
Although the rollout puts the firm well ahead of its global competitors, it was not the perfect launch DoCoMo was hoping for.
Users eager to get their hands on the futuristic videophone, which was meant to showcase 3Gs ability to send and receive information six to 40 times faster than DoCoMo’s existing ‘i-mode’ Net access service, will have to wait for another month while software glitches are fixed.
The delayed release of a planned allotment of 1,200 handsets with tiny video cameras comes after DoCoMo decided in mid-April to delay the full commercial launch of 3G by four months until October 1.
(With reporting by