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Upwardly mobile

A revolution is on the way Neil Doyle forecasts, but it will be taking place in your pocket, handbag or or briefcase with the advent of new communications technology

The world is in the throes of a second information revolution, and this time it's wireless. The reign of the PC is at an end - enter mobile phones, stage centre.

Companies around the world are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the creation of the mobile internet, each hoping to capture a big slice of the biggest prize in the history of capitalism.

E-commerce is forecast to be worth US$6,800bn in 2004 and, while it is predicted that 7% of retail sales will be made online within four years, estimates range up to 50% for business-to-business transactions. The global construction market is expected to account for ú3,200bn, putting the industry at the forefront of this commercial sea change.

The PC has long held the dominant position as the primary means of accessing the internet, but this will be lost over next five years to mobile phones, which in turn will evolve into personal digital assistants.

This is already a fact of life in Japan where internet users may have topped the 10m mark by the end of June, with virtually all access via mobile phones.

This rate of change is due to the country's already high levels of mobile phone penetration and the complexities of adapting Japanese to the computer keyboard.

And in China 65m users are expected within two years.

It has all been sparked by wireless application protocol technology. WAP was developed by Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia to filter and adapt existing internet content and make it easily available by mobile devices. The result is a simple microbrowser tailored to suit the tiny screens on mobile phones. The intelligent software that drives WAP services exists on the server that the phone connects to, mimismising the hardware requirements for handsets.

The technology is an extension of Nokia's short messaging system, which enables simple text messages to be transmitted between phone users. In Europe alone, some two billion SMS messages are now sent every month. WAP builds on this to offer access to e-mail, information and ecommerce. Japan is already served by 7,000 WAP-specific internet sites and it is now commonplace to read the news and book restaurant tables and concert tickets using a mobile phone.

Europe is catching up fast and is expected to open up a two year lead over the US, where mobile development has been hampered by infighting over the adoption of common technical standards.

The UK-based internet construction portal Constructionplus. co. uk is believed to the first world's first construction-specific internet service to offer WAP-tailored services. Users can already use their mobile phones to access company directories on the move and more features are expected to be launched shortly.

However, mobile possibilities are currently limited by the poor transmission rates of mobile phone networks.

New high-speed mobile internet technologies are already being tested and are due to explode in Europe over the next two years. So-called Third Generation (3G) wireless services - fast enough for full-motion video - will open up a whole new vista of possibilities. If WAP is compared to Space Invaders on the Atari, 3G is Lara Croft on the Dreamcast.

The first step towards 3G is the general packet radio switch system (GPRS), which has been dubbed 'second-and-ahalf generation'. This builds on the present GSM mobile phone system and is viewed as a test bed for discovering what consumers will demand from 3G systems.

GPRS is a non-voice system that can transmit data at speeds up to 10 times faster than WAP. No dial up connection is necessary and a phone is always connected to a data network. Data are divided into related 'packets' and the pieces are reassembled at the receiving end in a process known as 'packet switching'. Multiple radio frequencies are used simultaneously to maximise bandwidth.

BT Cellnet looks set to chalk up a world first with the 26 June launch of its GPRS PocketNet Office service, designed to give mobile phone users remote access to company intranets.

Most of the telecom giants plan to go mass market for Christmas. Speed and immediacy are the two attractions, and with e-commerce morphing into mcommerce, the speeding up of credit card transactions is one of the obvious attractions to service providers.

3G services will be launched in Europe in 2002 and then rolled out across the world. The Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UTMS) is the frontrunner. This is being billed as the biggest revolution in telecommunications since the invention of the telephone itself.

UTMS is designed to integrate fixed line and wireless access and handsets can be used anywhere in the world. Data transfer rates of up to 2Mbps will be possible - nearly 40 times faster than a high speed computer modem - and much higher performance will be possible by plugging the handset into a network socket.

The UK Government's auction of licences to operate networks in Britain raised US$33.75bn; far higher than the US$5bn pre-auction forecasts. This auction process is currently being replicated by European and Asian governments and 84 other licences are expected to be auctioned off over the next 12 months.

Billions more dollars will be spent building the networks, as well as developing handsets and services. The vast sums involved are likely to mean high prices for users when the services finally come on stream.

Various concepts to make the most of 3G speed are currently being developed and tested by handset manufacturers, embracing speech, data and multimedia. These will include live full motion video on demand, video-conferencing, multi-media messaging, GPS tracking and navigation, and locationspecific information.

Handsets with built-in cameras have obvious implications for the remote management of construction projects and could remove barriers to the digital transmission of drawings and documents with instantaneous download times.

Intelligent search software, voice command technology and personalisation will see the phone evolve into the personal digital assistant; pocket oracles that will also move into cars and become incorporated into clothing.

The services that can be offered are only limited by the imagination of the designers.

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