Network: The Indy's going mobile

Soon you'll be able to read this paper on your phone, thanks to WAP, a new Internet language being developed by Vodafone and Independent News and Media. David Felton addresses the big questions
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What is WAP?

WAP stands for Wireless Application Protocol, a new language enabling Web access. The first WAP mobile phones are just reaching the market. The Internet content is presented on a mobile's screen without the need for a built-in browser like Netscape or Explorer. WAP does this by employing Wireless Markup Language (WML), a simplified version of HTML, and any Web page written in HTML can be translated, in a reduced version, to a WAP device.

Will WAP be as good as a PC?

Not initially. The display capability is much reduced, and the download speeds to mobiles are slower. But the second and third generation of WAP devices will be much better in both respects. In the next couple of years, the rollout of the General Packet Radio System (GPRS) will increase bandwidth by combining multiple voice channels together, and the third generation mobile should receive data at up to 2Mb per second: enough for video and graphical applications. Mobile manufacturers are working on phones with improved screens and display capabilities.

Who is moving into this market?

All the mobile network services are very involved and, as well as working closely with the device manufacturers, are busy signing up content providers. They are also working with retailers and e-commerce providers, such as banks, to put useful services on to the device. The BBC and Reuters have also been active as content providers (and we will be too, of course). Services will include news, results, betting, shopping, banking and business-to-business services.

Why is everyone so excited?

The number of mobile devices in the market already exceeds PCs worldwide by some margin, and growth is higher. In some countries, mobile phones outnumber landlines, and some predict over 1 billion mobile devices in use by 2004. A large proportion of these will be WAP enabled, and therefore their users will be able to access the Web wherever they are.

How is Independent News and Media involved?

Through our partnership with Vodafone and our investment in I-Touch, we can provide the three elements needed for a successful service: the mobile network, the middleware needed to make it work well, and the global content and services. Our investment in Short Messaging Systems through our relationship with InTouch (the predecessor to I- Touch) in South Africa alongside Vodacom showed the power of these systems. SMS will continue to be developed by us but will also provide a platform of users who will be ready to migrate to WAP.

Wayne Pitout, the joint managing director of InTouch, said it should be possible to personalise short message alert services so that a subscriber would receive tailored information alerts. Much of the technology needed for multimedia phones is still being developed. "We are dabbling with the technology, but it is going to be 12 months before it's ready," he said.

An InTouch team will soon move into Independent's Canary Wharf headquarters in London's Docklands and the service is due to be launched early in the New Year.

How much will WAP phones cost?

Siemens claims to be the first to launch a WAP phone in Britain - the S25 - which sells for around pounds 80. Nokia is about to launch its WAP phone, the 7710.

The new generation phones will have a big price advantage over PCs, forcing hardware manufacturers to find new ways of making their packages more competitive - a competition that will be open warfare within three years.