We all know that it had to happen. After months of hype escalating to the point where major carriers were advertising “web surfing” on your phone, WAP has suddenly come under heavy fire simultaneously from the media, end users, and corporations promoting competitive technologies. Perhaps the culmination of this attack was the now infamously titled WAP Is Crap article from ZDNet UK. (Sure, the headline was controversial but more objective rhymes such as “WAP’s Not A Snap” or “The WAP Roadmap” surely wouldn’t have gotten as much attention!) Now that the first wave of WAP –and wireless data, in general– euphoria has come and gone, this seems to be a good time to take a step back and look at what lessons may have been learned, what problems still need to be solved, and what went well from the start.
The Ground Rules
To have an objective discussion on WAP, I think it’s necessary up front to come to some basic agreements. Philosophical debates surrounding socialism vs. capitalism or creationism vs. evolution always fail because proponents on both sides disagree on the absolute tenets of the other side’s argument. For instance, if creationism is based on a belief in God and you, the evolution proponent, are an agnostic, chances are that there is no chance of a discussion leading to a mutual understanding. Similarly, in the case of WAP, one of the first things that must be agreed upon is that mobile access to data and applications will be very, very big. If you don’t believe this up front, then obviously WAP is of limited use to your “worldview”. Many critics of WAP start out by saying something along the lines of: “Why would I ever want to surf the Web on my phone?”, ignoring the fact that pushed stock quotes, reminders, urgent email messages, and location-based services can be very useful. Assuming you believe that there is a large market for these services, read on.
If Not WAP, Then What?
In order to capitalize on pent-up market demand for mobile services, carriers obviously require some standardized method to deliver and display content to a wide range of devices. A few options are available now (XHTML, cHTML, WML) but none of these were ready when carriers began looking at the “wireless Internet” 3-4 years ago…thus the creation of WAP. The fact is that WAP (and its display language, WML) includes a host of features designed specifically for high-latency, low-bandwidth environments. To date, no other vendor-independent technology supplies this. The ability to group related content into cards to be ‘thumbed’ though without repeat trips to the server, the binary compression on-the-fly of content, the use of the “thinner” UDP (as opposed to the Internet’s use of TCP), and the use of gateways to connect to a variety of bearers (including GSM, CDMA, GPRS, and UTMS) — all of these are features carefully thought out by WAP’s original developers and all allow WAP applications to work uniformly across some fairly extreme environments. Some would argue that WAP will die out once “always-on” technologies such as GPRS are available but I would argue that these technologies are crucial for mobile services to become widespread and will only contribute to WAP’s growth. Connection delays and difficulties, server-side RAS issues, and other issues are exactly what end users do not want to deal with. I know that carriers are anxious to open new revenue streams, but I would contend that WAP should never have been rolled out en masse before GPRS networks were ready. The paradigm shift is already too great for most users without adding in phone configuration, server problems, etc. The success of iMode in Japan has been one of the great wireless stories this past year and the utility of an “always-on” connection in that case should not be discounted.
Utopia vs. Reality
Yet another barb tossed at WAP is the fact that sites will have to recode much of their content for WAP’s sake. To this, again I say: you either believe in mobile content delivery, or you don’t. If you don’t, case closed. If you do, accept the fact that the “holy grail” days of a uniform-HTML-everywhere standard are over and move on. Any developer on earth will tell you that different design rules apply to a tiny (1.5 inch by 3 inch) display than to content displayed on a 17″ monitor. The fact is, no matter what markup is used, content will need to be retrofitted and, in many cases, completely rethought before it is acceptable on a small device — whether that be a phone, PDA, or kitchen appliance screen. Currently, there are a number of ways to get content out to mobile users (including XHTML, Compact HTML, WML, AvantGo, and Palm Query Applications) and, of all the options, WML offers the best combination of widespread support and standardization. No matter which format you choose to go with, your server-side content management architecture will need to be rethought, thus the emphasis on XML as a lingua franca of data interchange and output. Organizations everywhere are now rethinking their back-end processes and are finding that an XML-based approach provides the critical “glue” between devices, servers, and customers. This thought process leads to a more flexible design which is always a good thing.
One item that must be ironed out before WAP can move forward is the issue of browser compatibilities and support for the WAP standard. As long it is very difficult to build a WAP application that runs the same way across multiple phones, WAP will continue to fight negative impressions. The WAP Forum is currently working on comprehensive acceptance criteria that will go a long way to ensuring that phone browsers work as they are supposed to. In the end, however, the usual rules will apply: if the software companies (i.e. the Phone.coms of the world) want the standard to develop and grow, they need to stick to the actual standard and resist vendor-specific additions. We, the developers and end-users, are nearly powerless in this area and are forced to rely on the companies involved to act in the standard’s best interests.
Give ‘Em What They Want
Finally, the past year has led us a little closer to determining what end users really want. Based on the feedback I’ve received (plus my own personal experience), I have to say that the traditional telephone keypad is simply too limiting to ever be a successful data input device. To that end, look for a variety of new WAP-ready devices to hit the market later this year that include pen input and additional applications such as an address book, calculator, email client, and calendar. Just this past week at the Phone.com Unwired Universe conference, LG Electronics unveiled their 3000N handset (codenamed “The Rainbow”) and Sprint PCS plans to begin selling the 3000N this fall. Additional bells and whistles such as a color browser and a voice browser will go a long way to improving the end user experience.
There’s alot of blame to go around when it comes to WAP’s current image problems. However, I think the real problem was unavoidable. The precedent set by the success of the World Wide Web led the media and public alike to expect the Web, circa 1994-1999, to happen wirelessly in the first half of 2000 alone! I believe what we have witnessed to date is comparable to Mosaic being released by Marc Andreesen and gang at the University of Illinois. Taking into account that wireless networks and devices are much more complicated than their wired counterparts, 2005 may be a reasonable date to look for a seamless, global wireless Web with WAP as one delivery mechanism (and XHTML as the markup language).