Wireless internet technology is set to simplify the lives of journalists when they are outside of the office. Using their phones, reporters will soon be able to take share prices from company websites and access information from news services.
The technology is already in place to do this with WAP phones, albeit in an embryonic form. The real problem will be persuading journalists to take WAP to their hearts, given its recent bad press. At the root of the problem is a popular misconception.
WAP has come to mean the second generation (2G) of mobile telecommunication, falling between 1G, the standard mobile phone, and 2.5G, the yet-to-be-launched GPRS (General Packet Radio Switching). Following the launch of GPRS in 2001, the third generation (3G) of mobile internet devices, or UTMS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System), will be launched into the marketplace.
WAP stands for Wireless Application Protocol, a term coined in early 1997 when a group of like-minded wireless network operators, including Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, banded together to create a global standard for all wireless networks. Correctly speaking, WAP is not any specific generation of mobile internet devices, but stands for all generations that are WAP-enabled.
'Everyone jumped on WAP as if it were the end solution,' says David Ingle, Edelman director of technology, 'when really WAP is the enabler which allows data from a server to be carried to the phone.'
Expectations of WAP were unrealistically high. Early adopters were disappointed to find websites accessible through their WAP handsets lacked the colour, flash and speed of those accessed from their PC. The 'WAP is crap' headline was born.
But Text 100 deputy general managing director Donald Johnson points out that wireless internet technology is still evolving. 'The problem is that WAP became a consumer term when it shouldn't have done. It was only ever going to be a stepping stone,' says Johnson, whose clients include e-infrastructure client InfoSpace.
Its etymology aside, WAP usage is growing. Early sales of WAP-enabled phones were slow but figures from BT Cellnet show that 37 per cent of new customers bought WAP phones in the first quarter of 2000. Industry observers predict usage will grow rapidly now that Genie has introduced a flat rate tariff, enabling users to leave their WAP phones on all day and browse at leisure.
In the business world, there are many advantages to having a WAP-enabled handset, according to Barnaby Levy, managing director of Triggerfish Communications, which specialises in media and new media.
'WAP is immediate. You can reach journalists straight away since their phones are always in their pockets,' he says.
At present, journalists can access logos and simple graphics through their WAP-enabled phones, but not video clips. Triggerfish client, broadcast entertainment service XY Network can additionally support an audio feed, accessible to users via BT's mobile internet portal Genie. However, few journalists outside the technology sector have access to WAP phones.
Not many publishing companies are being tempted to hand out WAP phones to journalists in the light of their bad press, expense and the fact that the job can be done perfectly well using existing technology.
Even those journalists with WAP phones say they are not yet part of daily life. 'I get 600 e-mails a day from PR people, but I receive nothing through WAP,' says Dr Martyn Warwick, group editorial director of Advanstar, which owns technology publications including Euronet. 'For a journalist to take notice of a press release via WAP, it would have to be a pretty big news story. PR people shouldn't use WAP for something that is irrelevant.'
The general consensus is that far better communications already exist.
And until the technology improves, it is unlikely that WAP will become an instrument to facilitate the everyday communication between PR people and journalists.
'At present WAP is best used as a mobile phone,' says Steve Day, Virgin Mobile director of corporate affairs. 'Journalists like to speak and be spoken to because the horse's mouth has never been bettered.'
Day believes many journalists would find communication through WAP-enabled phones annoying, but thinks it may become a more accepted channel by the third or fourth generation. 'At first journalists resented receiving information by e-mail. It took a few years for that to become accepted,' he adds.
So how will WAP fit into the communication mix between PR people and journalists? Journalists whose jobs involve monitoring a particular company will perhaps have the most to gain. PR people already send journalists headlines via SMS (short message service).
In the future, a journalist who has received a SMS message alert could access the website of the company being monitored through a WAP phone to get the whole story. This would be particularly helpful if the journalist is away from the office.
According to Ingle, Edelman client Genie is close to adopting this service for journalists who wish to be kept informed.
'This kind of service must be permission based,' stresses Ingle. 'If journalists cannot get to their computer or laptop, they can be alerted to the SMS headlines and then use a WAP phone for the full story. It will help journalists to manage their information overload - just think how many press releases they receive in one day.'
And internet mobile phones will shortly allow users to pinpoint each other's location, as well as the whereabouts of nearby restaurants and services. PR people could conceivably use WAP to check the whereabouts of journalists who are late for interviews, as well as find a restaurant for an impromptu lunch meeting.
Communication between news services and journalists will also be enhanced by WAP. Daryl Willcox, a company director of The Source, believes WAP would be best suited to journalists who spend time away from their desks, such as court reporters, lobby correspondents or foreign correspondents.
'For them, a filtered press release wire service - providing only the most relevant breaking stories - would be useful on their mobile device.
But the problem is filtering. Even if releases are very well categorised or you have the most advanced artificial intelligence system to do the filtering for you, the best person to do this job is the journalist,' he says.
Dow Jones has already made many of its news services available via WAP.
An online version of The Wall Street Journal (wsj.com) is accessible to subscribers in the UK through mobile internet providers including Vodafone. In addition, Dow Jones news wires and tailored content are also available to subscribers via WAP as an added service.
Tomas Andersson, business development manager of BIT, the Swedish subsidiary of The Observer Group, which includes the UK's Media Information, says subscribers currently receive e-mails and SMS alerts.
Journalists can also access WAP through the company's partnership with mobile portal celltribe.com. Andersson, who is the group expert on WAP, says: 'Journalists can read stock releases and access newspapers.' However Andersson ultimately believes the computer is a better research tool than WAP.
Clearly there is some way to go before WAP is used as a daily communications tool between news services, PR people and journalists. The arrival of the next generation of WAP-enabled devices will make this a reality, though no one is exactly sure how the picture will emerge.
'There is a lot of talk in the industry about killer applications,' says Johnson. 'Everyone is waiting to see what WAP's killer application will be, but as yet it has not emerged.'
The next generation of high-speed mobile networks, such as GPRS and UTMS, are when the technology is likely to be most useful for getting news to journalists. 'These mobile devices will have big screens and decent input devices, instead of the current one-inch screens and telephone keypads,' says Willcox.
'This is when searching for relevant news, downloading images and even conducting video interviews will become something journalists will do on an everyday basis,' he adds.
WAP will not have a clear run, however. In Japan, mobile operator DoCoMo has established a rival technology, i-mode, which boasts 12 million users, and the operator is buying its way into the European telecommunications market. Clearly WAP will have some stiff competition if it is to win the hearts and minds of European users.
There may well be yet more trouble in store for European mobile internet providers. The Data Protection Commission believes a European Directive implemented by the Government last year could make local text advertisements on mobiles - a crucial source of revenue - illegal. However, a new draft telecom directive, to be discussed at next year's Lisbon Summit, may go some way to resolving this issue.
But no matter what the future holds, one thing is certain - WAP will revolutionise the communications landscape.
Levy offers a vision of the future straight from Star Trek: 'Within ten years we'll all be wearing wireless internet watches with blue tooth chip technology on our wrists. In our ears, we'll have wireless headphones to combine audio with visual. It'll be amazing.'
The outlook for WAP and its future generations is promising. WAP technology will ultimately provide a medium through which news services, companies and PROs will be able to communicate with journalists on the move, and the latter will be able to access relevant information anywhere and at any time.
FANTASY CASE STUDY - HOW WAP COULD BE USED
The days of using WAP-enabled mobile phones as a tool to communicate with journalists have not yet arrived. So PRWeek asked two journalists working in the technology sector what kind of information they would be happy to receive via WAP.
Tony Dennis, a freelance journalist writing for titles including IT Week, says he would like media directories to be accessible via WAP. As for news stories, he believes WAP should be reserved only for major announcements.
The kind of story that would make Dennis sit up and listen would involve a company such as Microsoft and the launch of a piece of ground-breaking technology.
At present Microsoft does not have a WAP-compatible desk-top browser.
If for argument's sake, Microsoft was to launch a WAP browser that was also i-mode compatible, the proverbial press would stop.
Of course we are dealing in fantasy: the technology does not currently exist to support such a browser. Users would need a GPRS phone at the very least. But if Microsoft were to launch a WAP-compatible desktop browser, to use WAP as part of its launch strategy would be stroke of genius, according to Dennis.
'Let's say Microsoft suddenly decided to bring out Explorer 8.5 with a WAP compatible desk-top browser. It's my guess their press people would call journalists before the official announcement and get their WAP phone numbers if they didn't already have them.'
Dr Martin Warwick, Advanstar group editorial director, takes over: 'First of all, Microsoft would need to decide on the target audience.
The business and technology press would be the most relevant, since most journalists in these sectors have WAP phones. Next there would need to be some kind of alert relayed through WAP that something big was about to happen.'
Warwick suggests Microsoft reaches a prior agreement with the UK's network operators, such as Orange and BT Cellnet, to make the WAP-enabled phones of the targeted journalists ring with a brand new tone. The launch could be co-ordinated from Microsoft's press office at the touch of a button.
The surprise element of the new tone would ensure journalists actually picked up their WAP phones and did not delete the message unseen.
'Journalists often take an 'if it's important they'll call me back' attitude when dealing with press people. A new ringing tone would really grab their attention, otherwise they may not answer, especially if they are busy.'
The next stage would be to relay a short message to the journalists, which could take the form of a pre-recorded audio message or a text news flash.
'It should be short, sharp and straight to the point,' says Warwick.
'Something on the lines of, 'you are part of an elite group of journalists who are the first in the world to hear about a new launch from Microsoft'. Journalists have so many press releases to filter through every day, it's important that the message really grabs the eye.'
Having captured their imaginations, journalists would be invited to click on an attachment to receive the full story. 'It would be using technology to prove the technology,' adds Warwick.
WAP-ENABLED PHONES GET SHORT SHRIFT IN THE PRESS
From obscurity to overkill in three years - this is the history of WAP, but it's only the start.
The UK's first WAP-enabled phone - the Nokia 7110 - was launched in late 1999. Before this, the press devoted very little coverage to the mobile internet telecommunications industry.
Stories that did appear concentrated on the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) forum. In July 1997, Presswire reported 'Industry Support for Wireless Protocol Gains Momentum' following the endorsement of the protocol by telecommunication companies including Nortel and Siemens.
By the end of the following year, news wire services were reporting on the technology behind the new generation of mobile phones, but it wasn't until the launch of the Nokia 7110 that there was a tangible focus of attention.
One of the first newspapers to report on WAP phones was The Daily Telegraph.
In March 1999, the newspaper published an article entitled 'Web Phones to Shrink and Go Faster,' following the preview of Nokia's 7110 and Ericsson's R380 at the annual CeBit technology fair in Hannover.
However, it noted WAP phones would remain 'largely useless unless companies providing internet material translated their services to the new WAP format'.
Following the launch of the Nokia 7110 in late 1999, The Sunday Times called its menu displays 'confusing' and the phone itself 'large and unwieldy', while industry title Internet. Works described the features offered as 'limited' but generally gave the phone the thumbs up.
Elsewhere there was little talk of the limitations of the WAP-enabled phones. In December 1999, The Times painted a glowing picture of the world following the Government auction of licences to mobile phone operators, telling readers to forget e-commerce - 'm-commerce is the new buzz'.
Similarly, The Observer talked up WAP in its feature 'WAP, WAP-A-DOO WAP', reporting that mobile phone penetration among groups of 18 to 21-year-olds in Finland was 150 per cent and that many Finnish clubbers wore lightweight WAPs around their necks as fashion items.
By October 2000 the bubble had burst. The Industry Standard Europe captured the mood in its feature entitled 'Plugging Away With Wireless'. It wrote: 'Eager WAP marketing campaigns inflated expectations by promising the internet in your pocket, not four lines of text.'
Of course, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg as far as WAP press coverage is concerned. The next generation of WAP-enabled phones will launch next year, followed by third and fourth generations in the future.