WAP's not dead yet, honest

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The Independent Online

Silence fell upon the offices at Revolution last week when a WAP phone landed in the eager palms of one of my colleagues. "Does anyone want a go?" he asked. Maybe our apathy was due to an overdose of the internet, or maybe it's because WAP phones just don't do live up to the hype.

Silence fell upon the offices at Revolution last week when a WAP phone landed in the eager palms of one of my colleagues. "Does anyone want a go?" he asked. Maybe our apathy was due to an overdose of the internet, or maybe it's because WAP phones just don't do live up to the hype.

Last week, IBM executives speaking in Texas said that WAP phones are never going to be the next big thing, though WAP as a standard would live on. They said the displays on WAP phones are too small, and Palms are winning hands down in the United States.

Last week also saw Vesta Group, a European technology investment company, launching a wireless internet business unit. Led by Ken Blakeslee, former vice-president of wireless internet strategy at Nortel Networks, and Chris Smith, former head of group strategy at Nokia, the team believes that there is a huge gap in the market for small devices that will do justice to the next generation of mobile technology.

Here in Europe, take-up of mobile phones is much greater than in the US. Forrester Research last week predicted that by 2005 three-quarters of Europeans will carry WAP phones. Again, they said, it's not the WAP standard that has made WAP a dirty word but weak services. Refuting pundit claims that WAP is dead, it tells us to "get real".

The same advice could be given to retailers, content providers and financial services firms. Set realistic consumer expectations or risk public scorn and permanent alienation. And silence from those who really should be getting it.

Wanted women

iVillage is hoping to bring some of it's US experience as a leading women's portal over here when it launches iVillage.co.uk this year. It's hoping to redirect the 176,000 UK women who visit the US site to use the co.uk version through its £12.4m backing from Tesco, via Tesco.com, in stores and mail-outs.

Co-founder Hillary Graves admit's that just because you are number one in the US doesn't mean you will be here, but she claims that the site's strength lies in its "community feel" within the channels. It will be refreshing if the site really does abandon the one-way traffic of delivering dry, and often patronisingly dull, content associated with "women's" sites. But with CharlotteStreet, owned by Associated Newspapers, last week changing its name to femail.co.uk (derived from the Daily Mail's Femail section), the gearing of women's sites towards specific audiences, rather than just women, seems to be happening.

Targeting women in their thirties and forties, femail.co.uk will leave rivals such as handbag.com, about to celebrate its first birthday, the younger end of the market.

What about iVillage? "It's women in their thirties who use us in the US, but we'll wait and see in the UK," said Graves. Meanwhile, Natmags plans to launch a UK version of its women.com.

With most of these sites looking pretty much the same at the moment, I'm not convinced it's even worth pigeon-holing women "in their thirties" who probably find it just as easy as men to browse the Web for information. Why not harness what these sites do well - networking and shopping - rather than trying to be a relationship counsellor, career planner, financial adviser and family planning clinic to women who happen to have been born in the same decade?

Faint praise for Oftel

Oftel, the UK telecom industry watchdog, has come under fire from all sides these past few weeks for failing to act quickly enough in forcing BT to open up its local exchanges so rival operators can install equipment to provide high speed internet access.

Rival telecoms operators, the Treasury and even the EU have had a go, claiming that BT has been calling all the shots.

Last week AOL, which has just launched its unmetered internet access package, stood up for the regulator. "It's a rare thing to hear in this industry, but we know that when Oftel grits its teeth it can force BT to do things against its will," said Matt Peacock, director of corporate communications at AOL.

Earlier this year, AOL joined US telecoms operator MCI WorldCom in campaigning for Oftel to force BT to offer a flat rate unmetered access product to competitors - and won. Nevertheless, Peacock agrees that Oftel's slowness in ensuring the unbundling of the local loop is cause for concern. "When I see big players like MCI WorldCom walking away from offering fast internet access in the UK because of the delays, which they have just done despite knowing how much the UK wants it, it doesn't reflect well on Oftel." All eyes will be on Oftel to see if it really has the teeth that Peacock claims it has.

Sign on the digital line

Even if we don't always entirely trust the Royal Mail to deliver something as simple as an envelope through a letter-box, the Post Office is hoping that it will have a role to play in increasing trust in e-commerce transactions.

It has linked up with the internet start-up UK Smart to offer CD-Roms containing the PKI (public key infrastructure) encryption technology, or, in plain English, free digital signatures to customers in 18,000 branches. It's a move which it says will boost public confidence in on-line transactions. The venture will also provide vouchers for those reticent about using credit cards on-line.

Digital signatures were given legal status with the Electronic Communications Act earlier this year and the signature can be sent along with any electronic communication, recognises the sender individually and is equivalent to a physical signature with all the legal implications and responsibilities that implies. With credit card fraud and security breaches hitting newspaper headlines on a daily basis, it's bound to increase the queues at the Post Office.

Lisa Simmons is senior reporter at Revolution magazine