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Wild Wild WAP: The wireless frontier
HONG KONG (IDG) -- The idea of WAP (wireless application protocol) is irresistible: the World Wide Web, but on a cell phone you can carry around in your pocket.
This assumes that you're patient enough to take the Web in tiny bursts on a screen the size of two thumbprints, typically delivered at 9.6K bps (bits per second) or 14.4K bps, depending on the service provider's network.
That objection aside, WAP seems much like the Web: Content wizards create and update sites for news, stocks, entertainment, e-mail and chat. All the end-user needs to do is surf around. It's pretty Buck Rogers, isn't it?
It isn't. Forget Buck Rogers, think Roy Rogers, America's fabled King of the Cowboys. Think about the Wild West, or in this case, the Wild Wild WAP. It's barren, it's uncharted, and hardly anyone knows what's going on.
This is true even in Hong Kong, one of the most developed mobile telecommunications markets in the world.
As a new customer of Cable & Wireless HKT (C&W HKT) in late April, with a slick new Nokia 7110, this correspondent one evening was anxious to check out reviews of local movies. In C&W HKT's I.Menu WAP listings were blurbs on nearly every movie out in the local theaters -- in February.
A few entries below, in the horoscopes, C&W HKT seemed to be doing its part for cross-cultural understanding. Fortunes based on the Chinese animal zodiac were spelled out in English only, while advice for Aquarians, Virgos and so on was only available in Chinese.
At the bottom of its own offerings, C&W HKT provides what WAP is all about: a heading called "Link To." Included there is a list of "HotSites." For these, HKT culled four of the finest WAP sites it could find around the world -- or, more specifically, around Hong Kong and Germany. One of these is entirely in German -- not a widely spoken language in these parts.
Less amusing was what happened when I tried to enter WAP URLs (universal resource locators) I'd found elsewhere. Nothing seemed to work. A call to customer service seemed to clear up the issue: "WAP service is only valid for our Internet addresses," the representative said. "You can't access those Internet addresses through our WAP phone."
Apparently, word hadn't gotten out to the cowhands on this one. Eden Lau, marketing manager for mobile services, assured me that outside sites should be accessible, so long as the data is allowed through the operator's firewall.
C&W HKT called a company I'd had trouble reaching and determined it had given the wrong URL on its Web site. Sure enough, I got through to the site, then tried several more and found a few that worked.
The outdated movie reviews, Lau explained, were the result of an incorrect 'pointer' to content on C&W HKT's Netvigator Web portal. Likewise for the horoscopes. Both were changed shortly after my call -- though I miss being able to read my Chinese horoscope in English.
Many sites still aren't accessible, however. Using a mobile phone keypad to punch in WAP URLs, many of which are as obscure as research-project links, is tedious. Once inside these services, the offerings can be a bit rough.
The travel information site wap.2PL.com, for example, offers good information on the places it covers, particularly in Europe. Its Asian country headings, so far: India and Israel.
There's nothing inherently wrong with WAP. Like TV or the Web, the content is what determines whether it's useful or merely amusing. Operators and content creators are nearly as new to this as their customers.
"Some of them know what they're doing, but not that many," said Eno Tsin, chief technology officer at Media60x, a Hong Kong-based developer of WAP software. "They're trying to toy with the technology and figure out what they can do with it. ...It sounds like 'Web,' so they want to make it like the Web," he added.
The key to better WAP content, Tsin said, is to stop thinking of it as the Web and to take advantage of its mobile quality through features such as information customized for the user's location. Hong Kong mobile operator SmarTone Mobile Communications soon will begin offering location-based services using Media60x technology, Tsin added.
Meanwhile, the hardy pioneers of the WAP frontier brave a rough-and-ready technology -- and get a laugh every once in a while.
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