Wireless protocol is coming. Are you ready?

News flash! By 2002, more people will access the Internet by phone than by PC. Did you know that? Do you have a plan in place to deal with that? Do you even know what a WAP phone is?

I didn't until I heard my colleague Ian Gillot talk about this amazing development at a recent International Data Corp. conference. WAP stands for Wireless Application Protocol, now in Version 1.1, which has the backing of every major phone company and 200 other firms, including Microsoft.

With WAP, there will be a single protocol for delivering Internet access to cellular phones. The protocol can also be built into handheld devices such as PalmPilots, Windows CE devices and pagers. The protocol is promulgated by the WAP Forum (www.wapforum.com).

Do you care?

You should. While the use of WAP phones to access stock prices or browse online catalogs via minibrowsers will be an important application, the real interesting applications will involve corporate uses. These include things such as the following:

E-billing. Consumers browse for goods online, get information and store locations, go to a store and pay for their purchase via their phone bills. This means interfacing your databases with those of the phone company.

E-support. Your customers get access to automated systems for first-line customer support, which is better than dialing direct to a call center. Select customers can get more personal treatment.

E-commerce. Customers use WAP phones to identify goods they want to buy online, but pay by using menus on their phones. This is more secure than sending credit-card information back and forth over the open Internet.

Of course, there are more exotic applications you can envision, including those that link with the Global Positioning System. Your phone could ring you when you're about to enter the vicinity of a particular watering hole, which could then offer you a special incentive to come in for a pop based on an electronic profile driven by your personal preferences.

No matter, these phones are coming. By the end of next year, it will cost more for handset makers to make non-WAP phones than WAP phones.

This should scare people in charge of corporate information systems for three reasons.

First, creating Web content that fits the tiny screens and limited keyboards will be an issue. All that work to develop frame-rich, animated, snazzy content will be wasted. Your Web site will have to be WAP-compliant and contain HDML script, which is similar to but not exactly the same as HTML.

Second, managing a WAP phone fleet will be a problem, at least for applications such as sales force automation, inspection and order entry. Will you know who has which phones where, which access rights they have or which minibrowser? Have you tripled your support staff yet?

Third is creating real-time, mobile applications that work. Expect support and administration issues that are an order of magnitude worse than your typical remote-access headaches. For example, when was the last time you developed a real-time application that was location-dependent? In a mobile application, knowing a customer's location may be as important as knowing the size of his bank account.

Come to think of it, there may be some political problems to solve as well. A lot of companies still manage their phone services through a department that is separate from the IT department. Because voice will still be the foremost application for WAP phones, there may be disagreement over technology and vendor choices.

If these phones weren't going to wash over the planet so fast, we might be able to deal with them in an orderly manner. But they are. In the time it takes to implement a major SAP or Oracle upgrade, we'll go from zero to millions of WAP phones accessing our Web sites. And wireless Internet time will be much faster than Internet time. JOHN GANTZ is a senior vice president at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. Contact him at jgantz@idc.com.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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