WAP, Europe's first try at a mobile Internet system, has instead become a synonym for oversold technology and customer unfriendliness. European telecommunications companies have largely turned off users with expensive, slow-moving offerings that sometimes required a 30-second wait between each "click," meaning that it takes minutes to call up a simple stock price or weather report. A mere 4% of the 243 million phones sold in Europe last year had the technology to access WAP sites -- and no more than half of those users took advantage of the feature, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.
After a marketing disaster like that, you'd think telecom companies would give up on WAP, which stands for wireless application protocol. Nope. Germany's Deutsche Telekom, for one, thinks WAP will remain the most popular mobile data format for at least the rest of the year. René Obermann, chief of the company's T-Mobile unit, says the company expects two-thirds of all mobile phones sold in Germany this year to be WAP-equipped.
Deutsche Telekom won't even relabel the technology to escape the stigma attached to WAP, which rhymes with flop. "You're right that WAP didn't meet initial expectations," Obermann conceded to reporters at a conference in Berlin. "But it has meaning to the public and not just negative."
REVISED PRICING. The German telecom giant insists it has learned from the past. It's adding new, more appealing features, such as software that allows people to access their company e-mail over a mobile phone. New equipment will speed service. In addition, Obermann hinted that Deutsche Telekom is close to announcing a new price structure for WAP service. Current pricing is based on data volume, which means people don't know exactly how much they're spending until they get the bill at the end of the month.
Is Deutsche Telekom setting itself up to repeat last year's disaster? Morgan Stanley sees some hope. Among the 1% to 2% of mobile-phone subscribers who use WAP, usage is approaching 45 minutes a month. That's slightly less than half the typical amount the users just spend talking. If that trend spreads to a broader group of people, WAP could help mobile-phone companies start to earn real money from data.
In any event, Deutsche Telekom may have no alternative for now. This month the company will start offering a faster form of mobile Internet, so-called 2.5G. But T-Mobil chief Obermann says it will take a year before sales of suitably equipped phones reach mass-market proportions. Sales of 2.5G handsets won't exceed 20,000 in February, a tiny fraction of T-Mobil's 20 million customers, Deutsche Telekom says. The more advanced technology, Obermann says, "will be much more relevant next year." Sounds like WAP will get a second chance to bop. By Jack Ewing in Berlin