19 February 2001
New media fashion cycles work on internet time. Just a few short months ago, getting hold of one involved the sort of queues or contacts usually confined to the latest games console. Not anymore. Now you can now pick up a Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) telephone for just a few pounds. If you play your cards rights, you can even get it for free - and even using it won't cost you anything if you time it right.
Last year, 3G licences in the UK paid in advance for Gordon Brown's pre-election sweeteners. Last week, France and Belgium saw their own auctions collapse. M
obile, it seems, is just so 2000.
Law firms have never been first off the blocks in adopting new media, either for their own internal benefit or as a way of servicing or reaching customers. Only now beginning to explore the power of relationships enabled by desktop networking, the world of wireless has been off-limits. Not only is the technology a foreign country to most IT departments, it hasn't exactly got many evangelists either.
Few new media technologies have had as bad a press as WAP - the nearest thing the UK has to tailor-made wireless data protocol. Not helped by the overblown rhetoric of the BT Cellnet surfing ads, the popular and trade press joined forces in condemning the embryonic standard that enables the delivery of hyperlinked text information to a handset. The attacks have been relentless. Only last week Which? joined in, saying the services were simply too basic.
Anyone who has ever accessed WAP services can only agree that it is like the days of the early internet - slow, unappealing, chaotic and flaky. But if you leave behind the desktop mindset along with the desktop itself, there is a potential for liberation and empowerment that will make the introduction of graphical web browsers look paltry.
What is wrong with WAP is not the technology or even the networks, although both need developing. What is missing are innovative services.
In the field of personal digital assistants (PDAs), AvantGo has made the palmtop a seamless companion with its takeaway content, rather than an electronic filofax. In the US, OmniSky made wireless content accessible and flexible. Serious content providers have invested in these services, making them work for the consumer. Few have made any such serious investment in WAP. You can get news headlines from countless organisations and even search a few archives, but these services have failed to become part of people's lives the way that AvantGo has.
Clients have driven the new media revolution in law firms by demanding 24/7 access, transparent billing and virtual meetings at their convenience. And it's only a matter of time before they demand that firms make those services mobile.
WAP may be temperamental and notoriously limiting, but it is here, and it is likely to form the backbone of any new higher-speed 3G services. What's more, despite the bad press, it is growing at 40 per cent per month, according to some providers. Firms can sit back and play catch-up as they have with the static internet, or take the plunge and create a mobile service now. It could be as simple as system management server (SMS) notification to teams and clients at key stages in the legal process, or as sophisticated as realtime collaborative wireless working. More importantly, it could be ready to expand along with its customers as the technology and the business models mature.