As DHL’s global electronic commerce strategy manager, Brussels-based Colum Joyce knows a thing or two about changes in technology. Thirteen years ago, DHL (www.dhl.com) management asked a global group, including Joyce, to devise a strategy to help keep the company current with cutting-edge business applications — without getting ahead of the curve. In response, Joyce and his colleagues developed a business-driven, technology matrix. “The matrix says that when 5 percent of our market adopts a new technology, we start looking at it,” Joyce explains. “When 10 percent adopt it, we start planning it and basically deciding what we want to do. When 15 percent have it in place, we build a prototype. After 15 percent, we’re putting it out into the market.”
And what is DHL putting out into the market right now? Wireless access to the company’s tracking and shipment information services. Given Joyce’s 15 percent threshold, that says plenty about the rise of wireless Internet access in Europe. So, too, does a recent report by Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that predicts that nearly a third of Europe’s online consumers will be using non-PC devices to get on the Web by 2004.
Not surprisingly, the sudden consumer fascination with the wireless Web stems in part from the rise of a new technology, wireless application protocol (WAP), which will be found on the next generation of handheld communication devices. Initially developed by Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, and US software company Phone.com, WAP makes it a whole lot easier to access and surf the Web on a wireless device, such as a portable phone or personal digital assistant.
Before WAP, loading and navigating standard HTML pages on mobile phones and other handheld devices could be maddening. One big problem: HTML-pages are designed to be viewed on a computer monitor, not on a 1.5-inch liquid crystal display. Worse, wireless devices currently do not provide nearly the same bandwidth as telephone lines. Indeed, attempting to load a standard HTML document using a mobile phone is the technological equivalent of sucking a bowling ball up a straw.
But WAP eases the cranial distress. By stripping down Internet content to work over a wireless communications protocol, WAP eliminates slow-loading pages and timed-out sessions. What’s more, the development of so-called third-generation technology should bring much broader bandwidth to mobile devices within three years. Nokia, which now markets a WAP server, estimates that 15 percent of all mobile phones sold in 2001 will be WAP-enabled.
Not all industry-watchers agree, however, pointing out that WAP devices are just now hitting the shelves. They also note that competing wireless communications protocols may supersede WAP. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the protocol, almost all handheld devices will eventually work with some sort of microbrowser that’s optimized for mobile communications. In fact, some industry watchers say there could be more than 200 million Europeans connecting to the Web from mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and other wireless handheld devices, within four years.