The future's bright, so stay on hold

Charles Arthur and Bill McIntosh get their mitts on the current boys' toy of choice
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The Independent Online

You've seen the television advert: bored youth turns on WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phone and is suddenly surfing around, Lawnmower Man-style. Well, who knows, but it looks futuristic.

You've seen the television advert: bored youth turns on WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phone and is suddenly surfing around, Lawnmower Man-style. Well, who knows, but it looks futuristic.

The truth is rather different. It's still a phone. You don't acquire the ability to surf when you turn it on. So what are the new ones like?

The Nokia 7110, Finland's WAP phone of the moment (and now the boys' toy of choice over here), is sleek and well-designed. It has a metallic-coated handset, an oversized display and a slide-down keyboard guard to stop numbers or commands being entered inadvertently. There's a neat roller bar and buttons either side above the cover, so you can scroll around sites.

Accessing a new site, though, is still easiest (that is, extremely cumbersome) by entering the site address into the keyboard. Sounds easy? Well then, just you try entering http://wml.internet.address as an SMS. It's an experience you will want to repeat as infrequently as possible - which implies that WAP portals will have a much bigger advantage than web ones.

Certainly, the Ericsson A320 suffers from a lack of the Nokia's forethought. It feels plastic-like, and too light in the hand (though the battery life is excellent). Sometimes you want a gadget to have some heft; this felt like a giveaway.

Ericsson offered a link to the Vodafone portal, which demonstrates how not to design a WAP site. Although it does have the BBC and The Independent's news, it quickly became frustrating to navigate down menus to a story, and then have to navigate back up again - so-called "drilling down" and "drilling up". In the time it takes to move up and down, you have spent enough money and wasted enough time that you might as well have bought the newspaper (well, you should have done anyway).

The Orange portal (accessed from the Nokia) showed the right way to do that. Orange's WAP site is well organised and simple to navigate around. The "Christmas tree" design of the information means that if you make a choice from one menu (such as news, weather, sport or transport), you can return to the beginning of a section or to the overview of the entire WAP archive by clicking the right button successively to go back.

The real caveat about Orange and Vodafone, and the BT Cellnet WAP offerings now on the streets, is that while WAP may have a brilliant future, it has a pretty dull present. The current 9,600bps access speed is far too slow, and means that transferring between menus can lead to lags of between five and 10 seconds. And given how much it costs to access these services, you might find that by the time you've read four or five items on different menus and checked the time and the bingo, some 25 minutes of your life have disappeared watching a logo go round and round.

You might be happy to pay £1 in call charges to find a plumber in an emergency, but for a couple of news or sport reports? You suddenly realise that 45p for 40 or so pages of news in, for example, The Independent, is pretty good value in comparison.

That said, WAP has a very bright future. But we probably need to wait until operators upgrade their networks to GPRS packet switching in the autumn (a move, incidentally, that will make the BT Cellnet WAP phones currently being sold for £100 - with £50 cashback - obsolete).

The corresponding fivefold rise in Web access speed, to around 50kbs, should help WAP take off in the mass market. But for now, you might prefer to spend £20 on a mini-FM radio and invest the other £80 - and wait for the technology to properly mature.