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Orange and Vodaphone will soon launch Wireless Application Protocol services that allow users to access the Internet. Just don't expect to see your favourite Web pages.
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The Independent Culture
The ability to access the Internet via your mobile phone came a few steps closer last week. Two of the UK's major mobile-phone operators announced plans to launch information services using the so-called Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and the organising committee of the standard - the WAP Forum - met in London to discuss the next version of the standard. Motorola has said that all its mobile phones will include a WAP browser by the end of next year, and other manufacturers are not far behind. This means a major revolution is about to start.

There is bad news, however. Scratch below the surface and you find that "the Internet on a mobile" is not really that at all. What's more, inconsistencies in phone design will mean a headache for would-be content-designers.

Orange says it will launch a WAP service next month and Vodafone will launch on 1 November. But neither company looks likely to introduce the facilities that are needed to let ordinary WAP phone users browse the Web.

To do that on the tiny screen of a mobile phone you need three things. First, the phone has to have a WAP browser built into it. Second, the Internet service-provider needs a special gateway that serves up information in WAP format; and third, that gateway computer needs to run special software that will convert standard Web pages into WAP messages for your phone.

In the short term at least, most users will get their WAP service from their telephone supplier, which will become their default ISP. The phones will have the number to dial programmed in, and it will take a brave soul to search through the functions of the phone to change this.

The problem for Web libertarians is that neither Orange nor Vodafone is preparing to install that third vital piece of software that converts today's Web pages into a format that can be read on a mobile phone.

WAP gateways are designed to read new Web pages written in a special language called WML, or Wireless Markup Language. Just as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is a collection of tags that describe how a page should be displayed on a computer screen, so WML tells a mobile device how a page should appear on a tiny phone or personal organiser screen. The problem is that while, for most of the time, WAP phone users will want to stick with the suggested WML pages highlighted for them by the phone operators, every so often they will want, or need, to access an HTML page and garner a vital piece of information.

For example, perhaps the Arsenal page has details of kick-off times, and you are planning to meet someone before an away game. True, an HTML page on a tiny screen will look a mess, but for most pages the important information is contained solely in text.

For several years developers have talked about launching WAP-type phones. The line has always been that while proper WML pages would look great, the phones would be able to display ordinary HTML pages in a bastardised format. The converter would usually leave out all the graphics, and everyone assumed that it would have trouble with frames and other Internet technologies but that plain text would be viewable.

At the Vodafone demonstrations last week, it was impossible even to access a page with just 20 words of text. The browser refused to acknowledge that the page existed at all. The company's most senior management and most highly trained technical staff maintained that it was impossible to read HTML pages on a WAP phone. Technically true, but somewhat disingenuous.

"They would say that, wouldn't they," laughs David Harris-Evans, European managing director of Spyglass, a company that has been producing content "converters" for years. In fact, half a dozen companies are developing HTML-to-WML converters designed to be installed on an operator's computer.

Harris-Evans believes it is "inconceivable" that Vodafone does not know about these products. He believes that this momentary memory lapse is caused by commercial interest. If you can get users looking at your services, you can direct them to where you want them to go and you can then gently start making money from them - either directly, or by routing them to other companies and demanding a slice of the pie.

"Everyone wants to own the eyeballs - the AA, the BBC, Marks & Spencer, the publishing companies - all of these organisations would love to grab them," says Harris-Evans. By limiting access to the wider Web, the phone companies can control what we see.

And this market matters. Harris-Evans points out there are three times as many mobile phone users as there are Internet users. "Only in North America are the Internet and mobile telephony neck and neck. In Europe, there are four times as many mobile phone users as Internet users and in parts of Asia the ratio is seven or 10 to one. That represents a huge marketing opportunity," he points out.

Both Orange and Vodafone have struck exclusive deals with Internet companies for the supply of news, travel information, restaurant guides and the like. The key, however, is that both hope to keep control of value-added services - especially shopping. They both appear to be aiming to have their own shops and to charge existing Internet shops for forwarding traffic.

Mobile phones are ideal for e-commerce. All digital phones have a smart card at their heart and this technology is highly secure. The phone companies and the banks are moving towards shared standards. NatWest has already demo-ed a WAP banking service and will launch a full service in January.

The new millennium will also see the arrival of faster connection technologies and downloading images to mobile phones, or more likely, to slightly larger organiser devices, will become commonplace. From there the leap to a wireless, image-rich e-commerce world is only a small step.

If mobile access pricing continues to drop, it is quite possible that connecting to the Internet via a "mobile" connection from a home terminal of some sort will be just as cheap as connecting to the Internet via a wired-in connection. So far, the telecom regulator Oftel is leaving the companies to develop the services as they see fit. "Competition will sort this out," says a spokeswoman. But she added that the regulator will look more closely "if this becomes a vital way of accessing information and services".

But if website owners do decide to develop WML versions of their HTML sites, which, after all, will produce infinitely superior "pages" on the tiny windows of these mobile phones, they face incompatibility problems.

Most phones have two buttons beneath the screens to control navigation. But Nokia, which has such a strong position in the mobile phone market, has produced a phone with a central roller button. Several companies that have used the application development software supplied by Motorola and Nokia have discovered problems operating the sites on the other phones.

The WML developer's life looks as if it will be a troubled one.