ANALYSIS: Why 'wapathy' is on the wane - A survey of early adopters suggests that the apparent initial apathy toward WAP technology has been turned by its perceived potential, writes James Curtis

There's a new syndrome among UK consumers, and it's called 'wapathy'. It describes the apparently luke-warm reception for WAP - the technology that is supposed to take us into the wireless internet age.

There's a new syndrome among UK consumers, and it's called 'wapathy'. It describes the apparently luke-warm reception for WAP - the technology that is supposed to take us into the wireless internet age.

Plagued by creaky networks, handset shortages and uninspiring content, WAP is accused of being nothing like the cyber-surfing image portrayed in ads such as BT Cellnet's latest campaign.

But WAP's image among consumers is not as bad as some reports would have us believe, according to interactive media research firm Teleconomy Group.

Its research - admittedly conducted among early adopters - suggests that people have a lot more patience with the faltering technology than may at first appear.

Teleconomy's report points to strong potential for advertising and m-commerce, with people willing to be advertised to and shop via their mobiles, as long as brands meet criteria concerning privacy, security and permission.

'Mobile Effect: Changing Media Use' is the first six-monthly instalment of a two-year study into how new mobile technology will affect people's social behaviour and traditional media consumption. Teleconomy interviewed 210 consumers.



Contented user base

Content providers and networks will be cheered to see 48% of people questioned in the study - using a variety of networks - say WAP has been as good as they expected, 23% say it is better than expected and only 29% consider it worse.

Consumer expectations seem to depend on whether they buy a new phone specifically to explore the internet. Those who do tend to be aware of the technology's current limitations and are therefore less likely to be disappointed.

The most critical, meanwhile, are those who know less about it, possibly discovering it as an incidental feature on their new phone.

For the WAP-educated, the technology's teething problems are offset by the realisation that it is paving the way for GPRS and 3G mobile services.

Sue Peters, research analyst at Teleconomy, says: 'More experienced users appreciate that WAP is doing an important job in paving the way for future services.'

Even though they know better technology is on the way, these early adopters are happy to enjoy WAP for what it is now, and are eagerly using it. Of the respondents, 57% use WAP daily, and 34% spend up to three hours a week online.

But just because some people are enthusiastic wireless surfers, brand owners should not see WAP as an opportunity to bombard them with ads.

Although WAP users are happy to receive messages which may be of value to them, they see their mobiles as a highly personal device and can be alienated if they feel an advertiser is invading their privacy.

This is a particular issue for location-sensitive advertising. The system has great potential in allowing advertisers to tempt consumers into impulse purchases whenever they are in a suitable location - one service, called ZagMe, is already being tested in giant shopping centres such as Lakeside and Bluewater - but localised advertising on WAP phones also has the potential to annoy.

A survey in The Guardian found that nearly 60% of consumers do not like the idea of receiving unsolicited messages via their mobiles.

Permission marketing is the key, according to Teleconomy. To gain permission, advertisers must ensure messages add value and carry real benefit, says the report. It adds that advertisers will have to offer a lot more than passive wallpaper ads - as with banners on the internet - to build a trusting relationship.

'Given the personal nature of the mobile phone, it is important that advertisers don't bombard consumers. Where possible, people should be given the chance to opt in to advertising, especially with localised services,' says Peters.



Ad trade-off

As well as opting into services such as localised advertising, permission marketing via mobile phones could extend to providing lower usage costs in return for customers accepting more commercial communications. This model received strong support in the study, as 86% of respondents said they would accept more advertising in return for free WAP services.

The report also suggests that WAP users are ready to embrace m-commerce.

This has huge potential. In Japan, more people now access the web via mobiles than PCs and some companies, such as toy and cartoon brand Bandai, are making revenues of over pounds 2m a week from sales via mobile phones.

The Japanese mobile internet market is considered to be two years ahead of Europe and brands are hoping the same m-commerce potential will soon be realised here.

For all the fuss over security and shopping on the web, consumers seem to be relaxed when it comes to buying via their mobile - 42% of respondents are happy supplying credit card details using WAP.

According to Peters, some of this confidence may be because WAP has yet to become embroiled in any of the security scares suffered on the web.

Another reason may be that WAP has arrived as people's web security fears are easing, so they expect all the latest advances in web security to also feature on WAP.

Twenty-six per cent say they will spend more than pounds 100 on a purchase via WAP, and 29% are happy to spend up to pounds 50. These numbers are lower than for purchases via PCs, where 57% will spend over pounds 100, but they are healthy amounts.

M-commerce is not limited to times when the user is on the move. If services are fast, cheap and easy to use, many respondents say they would shop using their mobile at home.

'I think we're going to see more people discover the internet via WAP, and for them, the mobile phone may be the most convenient shopping device, especially if they don't have a PC at home,' says Peters.

Of the respondents interviewed, 42% say their WAP phone might lead them to change the amount of time they spend using their PC or watching TV.

So despite WAP's faltering start, the mobile internet remains full of potential. By late-2001, it is expected that all new mobile handset sales in the UK will be WAP-enabled. And by 2004, mobile internet connection will overtake PC web access.

Much has still to be done to make the experience of using the wireless web better, but consumers now appear ready to use it to the full.



The full report is available for purchase from Teleconomy for pounds 950 (plus VAT), or pounds 800 (plus VAT) to members of the Media Research Alliance. To order a copy e-mail: rosie-wakley@teleconomy.co.uk.



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