WAP's Big Nap: Does Wireless Have a Future?

Business applications on wireless devices will grow rapidly during the next 3-4 years, despite the lack of interest in Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-enabled devices. However, we expect a high rate of failure in the next 1-2 years and a steep learning curve for companies trying to get it right. Despite the challenges, companies should proceed prudently with wireless deployments.


WAP's Limitations

Companies looking to exploit WAP-enabled devices for B2B and B2E must be keenly aware of WAP devices' significant limitations. These include the following:

  • Very small screen real estate, which means serving up content information in very small chunks
  • Difficult navigation (nothing beyond scroll up and down)
  • Severe data input restrictions (basically, keyboard multitaps, which are painful for anything but short messages)
  • Nonstandard displays (though many support Wireless Markup Language/Handheld Devices Markup Language, the lack of a standardized display [like VGA in PCs] means customizing information for each device and fine-tuning transcoding for each target device [e.g., Nokia vs. Ericsson vs. Motorola])
  • Nonubiquitous networks, with frequent drop-out or non-coverage in many areas, especially in North America
  • Immature voice I/O technologies and integration

These problems will be addressed in the next one to three years by more capable devices with increased connection speeds (via 2.5G and 3G networks), faster processors, and greater memory capacity that enables true browser clients, as well as greater I/O options (including voice processing on devices and networks) and connectivity options (e.g., from Bluetooth) that enable users to "attach" a device to the phone that provides better user ergonomics (e.g., larger screen, keyboard).

META Trend: During 2001/02, organizations will begin integrating pervasive devices (wired and wireless) with enterprise applications. Initial costs will limit early deployment to high-value solutions in B2E (2001), migrating to B2B (2002) and ultimately B2C (2003/04). During 2002/03, standalone application middleware vendors and wireless application service providers will deliver most mobile extensions. By 2004/05, application platforms will incorporate pervasive middleware functionality, consolidating the market and requiring enterprises to weigh tactical implementation decisions against long-term strategies.

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-enabled phones have been touted as the next big wave in the Internet. Yet WAP deployments have been less than successful to date. Indeed, our research indicates the number of companies with wireless deployments (many of them currently small-scale or in pilot) in business-to-employee (B2E), business-to-business (B2B), and business-to-consumer (B2C) uses is small (<5%). However, this will grow rapidly to 15%-25% in two to three years and to 40%-50% in three to five years. Nevertheless, we expect a large proportion of wireless deployments (50%-65%) to fail during the next one to two years, due to immature tools, limited understanding of user ergonomics, and user disillusionment with first-generation wireless devices (especially WAP-enabled phones - see Box). However, despite these challenges, companies should not abandon wireless. Rather, they should approach the next one to two years of limited deployments as a learning experience and develop corporate enterprise architectures, with end-user interaction "experimentation" providing concrete feedback on which ergonomic solutions will draw end users and which will fail. This will inevitably lead to widespread deployments of wireless and pervasive devices in three to five years.

We expect wireless to be deployed in B2E situations first (e.g., e-mail, field force automation), followed by B2B (e.g., travel services) and B2C (e.g., pervasive commerce, entertainment). However, for the next one to two years, most will be pilots (limited numbers of users in key areas, rather than companywide rollouts). This is a good thing because most organizations lack the skills and knowledge to effectively deploy wireless extensions to existing applications. Indeed, doing the right thing in wireless is not yet common knowledge and will require two or more years of experience. Deployment success will come from application excellence, not technology (e.g., the lack of acceptance of current-generation WAP-enabled applications and portals).

These high failure rates directly parallel the early days of the Web, when many companies rushed to deploy Web sites, which were often plagued by awful user interfaces that drove customers away. Nevertheless, organizations will gradually learn to adapt applications to become user-friendly (as they did with the Web), and wireless interaction in B2B and B2C markets will reach 15%-25% of interactions within two to three years and 30%-35% within four to five years. Companies that fail to enable wireless extensions during the next 12-24 months risk alienating their user base.

Smart Clients Versus Thin Clients

Smart clients have the ability to enable users of pervasive devices to continue working while disconnected (e.g., when a wireless connection is lost in a non-coverage area). This requires the following:

  • A local data store - flat files or database (e.g., from Sybase, Oracle, IBM, Centura, FileMaker)
  • A localized store-and-forward or caching-and-synchronization mechanism (e.g., IBM MQSeries, Sybase iAnywhere suite, Centura eSnapp, Synchrologic iMobile)
  • A synchronization capability at the application server
  • A sensing mechanism for determining when online or offline

Applications must be architected to be smart-client-aware, but because of the benefits, we expect many pervasive applications to implement this technology during the next two to three years.

Most organizations are looking to the thin-client model for deploying wireless applications (e.g., application execution on a server with only information display on the device). However, "smart clients" (see Box) will be the way successful wireless applications are ultimately deployed. Thin-client models require a ubiquitous connection, which is generally unavailable in a wireless environment. Smart clients, on the other hand, are able to store and forward information, enabling users to complete work when connections are lost and providing synchronization with applications when connections are available. We expect "smart clients" to constitute the bulk of corporate application deployments within three to four years. Companies deploying application extension to wireless devices must architect to smart client models or risk unsuccessful implementations.

Business Impact: To increase touch points and retain or attract customers, wireless application deployments will be important for businesses in the next two to three years. Companies that fail to learn how to compete in the wireless market will lose customers to competitors that do.

Bottom Line: Within three to four years, wireless capability will grow substantially and will constitute a significant portion of corporate interactions. Despite the technology challenges, companies must begin limited deployments in the next one to two years and architect for enterprise-ready deployments in three to five years.

Copyright )2001 META Group Inc. GLOBAL NETWORKING STRATEGIES is published by META Group Inc., 208 Harbor Drive, P.O. Box 1200061, Stamford, CT 06912-0061. Web: http://www.metagroup.com. Telephone: (203) 973-6700. Fax: (203) 359-8066. This publication may not be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without prior written permission. All rights reserved. Reprints are available.

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