With the country’s total number of Internet dial-up subscribers, or actual home-users, being a mere 558 000, it is clear there is a need to bring the Internet closer to home for many South Africans.
The reason for this low number of subscribers is evident: many people do not have access to the Internet at work or at home, while others simply cannot afford computers and the required software.
However, with about 2,4-million South Africans subscribing to cellphones, the groundwork has already been laid to take these masses into the next era, where a mobile phone is soon to become the only link between the user and the World Wide Web.
“The Wap solution is the key in providing interconnectivity to the mass market in places such as Africa and Asia, where cellular users far out number Internet users,” says Gary Cousins of Siemens Information and Communication Networks.
“With the right handset, you will not need computer hardware for Internet browsing,” he says.
A simple example that illustrates the practical implication of Wap is that everyone with a cellphone can now have an e-mail address, without the necessity of owning or having access to a computer.
Once a personal e-mail address is accessed, unread e-mail messages will be forwarded as text to the Wap-compatible cellphone.
The user will be able to reply to the sender by typing in a written message on the cellular handset.
“The cellular handset is used to dial into the Internet server via the wireless mark-up language, a specific language for wireless applications which allows the network operator to release Web information in a modified format, which is then displayed on the cellular handset,” says Cousins.
However, the cellular handset will not be able to carry the Web-page format complete with pictures and special effects.
Information will be downloaded from the relevant site, and displayed almost like a stack of cards.
Once the user has identified a certain option, the screen will display the next set of options, until the relevant information has been downloaded in a brief and clear summarised format.
There will be no need to scroll down screens full of complicated inst ructions or irrelevant information, which saves the user cellular airtime.
To illustrate this, one can, for example, dial into the World Cup Rugby Web site by typing in the words ‘World Cup Rugby’.
A range of options will appear on the screen, such as specific matches, venues, players, match statistics, and half-time and final scores.
The required information will appear on your screen instantly by continuing to select specific options.
Other Wap-compatible services include the retrieval of news headlines, traffic and weather reports, and Internet banking.
“One can imagine the potential Wap holds for future wireless mobile applications, but it would be unrealistic to expect that this technology will influence the mass market in a revolutionary way within the next eight to 12 months,” says Cousins.
“And, of course, Wap will not come cheap,” he warns.
“First you have to have the right cellular handset, then the additional airtime spent on the handset will also add an extra couple of hundred rands on to your phone bill every month – depending on how often you use the Wap Internet browsing facility,” he says.
Siemens has been the first to conduct its own Wap trial in South Africa, and will be launching Wap early next year after the Wap Gateway has been installed and tested on the cellular network.
The Wap Gateway enables information to pass through from the Internet to the cellular network, and on to the cellular handsets of the end-users.