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An abundance of 'me-too' hype

By RICHARD POYNDER

17th January 2001

The main attraction of W.ASPs lies in plugging the skills gap created by the complexity of wireless networks, and the ability to seamlessly connect a proliferation of devices and standards.

Most businesses have become familiar with the concept of the application service provider, or ASP, which rents and manages, off-site, packaged application software for corporate customers which then access it over a network. Now a new term has emerged: the wireless application service provider, or W.ASP.

Currently there is no agreed definition of a W.ASP. Mark Melford, senior associate in Booz Allen's London-based mobile internet group, describes it as an ASP with a more concentrated focus on wireless services. "The identification of themselves as W.ASPs, rather than ASPs, is purely to demonstrate their specialism in this area," he says.

Others see W.ASPs as just an extension of the ASP model. UK-based Aspective, for instance, offers customers a range of off-site applications, including software it has rented from Lotus, Siebel Systems and BroadVision. These can be accessed using the fixed-line model of the ASP, but now also over wireless networks. Miles Powell, Aspective's director of business development, mBusiness, says: "Our proposition says: this is our portfolio, and we are wirelessly enabling it as well."

But some believe W.ASPs are very different creatures. "Typically, an ASP will be renting somebody else's software, whether it be from Oracle, SAP or Siebel, and will run it in a large data centre," says Mark Potts, chief executive of Pervasic, a UK-based W.ASP. "The business proposition will say: 'scrap your MIS (management information systems) department, move your applications over to us, and access us over the internet'."

By contrast, he adds, the W.ASP emphasis is not on outsourcing existing corporate applications, but wirelessly enabling in-house systems so that mobile workers can access them on the road - using mobile phones, palmtops, PDAs, pagers or other wireless devices.

In Pervasic's case this is done using dedicated hand-held devices with a small keyboard and half-size screen. The benefit, says Mr Potts, is timeliness. "One of our customers is a pharmaceutical wholesaler. Previously, sales reps placed orders by phone or fax after a visit. Now they can do it in real-time on the customer's premises. The rep hits a button and it uploads to a central server, triggers their back-end service, and out goes the product on a van the next morning."

Alternatively, a W.ASP may provide a wireless communications channel for customers. Red Message, a Swedish W.ASP, has developed a wireless broadcast technology currently being used by Reed, the UK recruitment specialist, to alert job hunters when positions matching their profile are posted on Reed's website. Details are sent as an SMS message to their mobile phones. Offerto, a German online auction site, uses the same product to alert online bidders when someone has outbid them.

W.ASPs also offer attractive time-to-market advantages. When, last June, UPS decided to extend its web-based parcel tracking service to wireless devices, it used Air2Web, a US W.ASP. "When we looked at the time needed to develop it, and to formulate all the relationships with the carriers and device manufactures, we realised it would take a long time," says Angela McMahon, UPS spokeswoman.

"But by working with Air2Web we could move very quickly: the service was implemented in three months, and we were able to reach 94 per cent of the wireless market from day one - including users of Palm VIIs, Wap phones, basic text messaging phones, and pagers."

What companies such as Pervasic and Air2Web have in common with ASPs is that they rent the applications, taking responsibility for off-site maintenance and hosting. But rather than third-party packaged applications, they offer proprietary 'middleware' - able to interface between the growing number of wireless devices, the different networks, and in-house corporate systems and databases.

Content companies are also turning to W.ASPs to push information to their readers. Civista's Community Anywhere product, for instance, is being used by Reed Business Information to deliver agricultural news, weather forecasts and market prices to readers of Farmers Weekly Interactive. This is available using Wap phones, or any phone with SMS functionality. Adolfo Hernandez, Civista's chief executive, says: "Using a basic mobile phone a user can send an SMS message that says 'news pigs'. In response they receive the headline news on pigs. Alternatively, Wap users can navigate a series of news menus."

Other applications include voice interfaces and transactional services. Combining both, Red Message has developed an interactive voice interface to enable m-commerce. "A user could go to a music website, register an interest in, say, jazz, and then each month receive an SMS message detailing the jazz album of the month," explains Steven Yurisich, chief marketing officer at Red Message. "They can then dial a number, listen to the music, and order it using a voice menu."

W.ASPs also offer location-based services, using the ability of wireless networks to know the location of a user, and then deliver services customised to that location. Last year Paris-based W.ASP Webraska Mobile Technologies teamed up with French mobile operator, SFR, to deliver real-time detailed traffic maps on key locations within Paris, and the surrounding area, to users of Wap phones.

In the UK, Orange has been testing a location-based service provided by US W.ASP Airflash. This allows mobile phone users to locate, say, the nearest pizza restaurant, and then request driving directions to it. "The user can also share that information with a colleague, and arrange to meet them at the restaurant," says Kenneth Hart, chief operating officer of Airflash Europe.

The main attraction of W.ASPs lies in plugging the skills gap created by the complexity of wireless networks, and the need to seamlessly connect a proliferation of wireless devices and standards. As this complexity increases, so will the opportunities. In November, Aspective became the first W.ASP to announce services for the new GPRS network run by BT Cellnet.

But Richard Anton, director of UK-based technology venture capital firm Amadeus Capital Partners, doubts there is a long-term future for W.ASPs. The consumer-based services, he says, will eventually be taken over by network operators, and companies will do it themselves, "leaving little room for independent third parties".

Gavin Shurmer, a content manager in Orange's e-services division, agrees that, once they acquire the specialist skills, network operators may take some of the functionality in house. The solution, he says, is for W.ASPs to push the technology envelope. "There will be a future role for W.ASPs, so long as they ensure their pipe has always got new things coming down it."

A more imminent danger, suggests Ann Walsh, a senior analyst at Ovum, is scepticism caused by an abundance of "me-too" hype from companies with questionable claims to being W.ASPs. "Many are saying 'wireless internet is hot, let's put wireless in front of this and call ourselves wireless internet or wireless application service provider'."

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