The Tech Scene: Halfhearted Embrace for WAP Wireless: Second in a Two-Part Series

By Kingson, Jennifer A. | American Banker, August 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Tech Scene: Halfhearted Embrace for WAP Wireless: Second in a Two-Part Series


Kingson, Jennifer A., American Banker


The United States lags Europe and Japan in the development of standards for wireless Internet technology. Devices are more widely available in those places, and people can do more things with them.

Experts say there is little that U.S. banks can do to catch up right now, given that Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) telephones are not in general use here. They advise banks to prepare themselves, start working with the existing technology, and trust that consumers will want to buy their own Internet-enabled wireless phones once these devices work a little better, cost less, and can pick up more content.

"No consumer in their right mind, unless they're a total propeller-head, is going to go out and say, 'I have to have a WAP phone,' " said Edward Kountz, an analyst at TowerGroup, a technology consulting firm in Needham, Mass.

Mr. Kountz was blunt about it: "Until you start to see the WAP phones cycle into common usage, the question is, What good is WAP? And the answer is, none. If you build it, will they come? No, not until the phones are there."

This does not mean that banks should ignore WAP or the inevitable onslaught of wireless services and applications. "Financial institutions have to have a wireless strategy," Mr. Kountz said. "It's no longer a matter of 'if' but of 'when.' "

Until the next generation of wireless technology is ready, "the question for a bank is, What do you do in the meantime?" Mr. Kountz said. "Obviously, you've got to do something. WAP has been first to market, so there's a significant first-mover advantage" for banks that start offering it.

"I see WAP becoming a necessity for U.S. banks over the next 18 months," Mr. Kountz said, "but I don't think the shelf life of WAP as an end solution is much longer than 28 months, and that's something that financial institutions need to consider."

Banks that do not want to make the investment in-house to develop WAP platforms can of course consult a vendor. One of the leading vendors -- or "application service providers" -- is 724 Solutions Inc. of Toronto, which has helped Bank of Montreal and its Chicago-based subsidiary, Harris Bank, introduce the largest wireless telephone banking program in North America so far. The service in Canada is called Veev, and was introduced in May 1999. The U.S. service, introduced in March, is called Harris Wireless. Citigroup Inc. has bought a stake in 724 Solutions, and other major financial services firms, including Bank of America Corp. and CheckFree Holdings Corp., have hired the company.

Ian Hobbs, vice president of product development at 724 Solutions, says his company sees pros and cons to WAP but is indifferent to standards and protocols, because it can work with all of them.

"WAP was developed for small screens and limited bandwidth," he said. "WAP has to evolve quickly to be able to support all the types of things that people are going to want to do -- it will have to support color, graphics, higher levels of security."

On the other hand, "WAP has a significant advantage in the installed base it has," Mr. Hobbs said. "The devices are out there, all the handset manufacturers already have them. An evolution of WAP would be an advantage over moving to something different in the marketplace."

Mr. Hobbs said banks need to be most wary of developing in-house proprietary solutions that may become obsolete. Although that would seem to be a somewhat self-serving conclusion from a vendor, neutral experts seem to agree.

"From a 724 Solutions perspective, it's irrelevant" whether WAP prevails, Mr. Hobbs said. "For a financial institution, it's a very important point. They don't want to play up WAP if it doesn't make the evolution in the next 12 to 18 months. But there's a huge danger to financial institutions that go out and do their own development, code out a WAP-specific solution. You can't bet on any individual device, you can't be on any individual browser technology. …

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