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WAP Takes a Pounding

by David Sims
05/26/2000

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With a name like WAP, they should have expected it: the Wireless Application Protocol has really been taking a pounding lately.

The attacks are a sudden twist of fate for the protocol that over the past nine months has been hyped as the foundation of the next phase of wireless communications -- specifically, enabling the wireless web.

Predictions differ, but there's some consensus that at least by the end of 2003, more users will access the Web from phones than from desktop PCs (Nokia, 1999). WAP and the Wireless Markup Language have been touted by handset manufacturers and carriers as the technology that will best port web content and applications to a 4-line, 20-character display.

But critics charge that WAP isn't up to the task. Their criticisms fall into at least five categories:

  • WAP is designed to further the economic interests of the cellular carriers, the handset manufacturers, and sellers of WAP gateways.
  • The developers of WAP and WML, Phone.com and the WAP Forum, failed to use the collaborative process within the W3C and rushed ahead on their own agenda.
  • The protocol is flexible enough to allow different implementations on different handsets and browser clients, meaning a dramatic increase in the number of interfaces that web developers will have to design for and serve to.
  • It is only a temporary fix, a stop-gap measure for the few years until more processing power and wider bandwidth (G3 networks).
  • An incompatibility between wireless and Net security protocols exposes encrypted transactions in the middle of their journey, making the system risky for secure transactions like bill paying or banking.

Even with these drawbacks, it's clear there's no stopping WAP, at least in the short term. Nokia, Motorola, and Siemens are already selling WAP phones in Europe, and they're expected to roll out in North America in the second half of 2000. Given that, the objections are best viewed as things for the WAP Forum to keep in mind as it develops WAP v. 2.0.

"The real point about WAP is not that it's not very good," Psion's chief technology officer Charles Davies told the Ninth International World Wide Web conference last week in Amsterdam, "but that it's going to be in 100 million devices."

WAP as a Scheme

The first charge, that WAP is an upgrade designed to sell more phones, more air time, and WAP gateways, is one that WAP backers don't duck very low to avoid. Planned obsolescence is a given in the automobile and PC industries, so why not for wireless phones?

For much of what WAP will initially do -- send text data from Web applications in the form of news headlines, stock quotes, and personal messages -- existing digital systems do a decent job. Some people think that moving to a system like WAP that asks more push-button interaction from the user may be a step in the wrong direction.

Tim Zenk, corporate communications director for Xypoint, says developers shouldn't be thinking up applications that force users to push buttons on a cell phone. The natural form of input on a phone is voice. He cites what he calls the 50-percent rule. "Every time you force a consumer to push a button on a cell phone, you lose 50 percent of them." Xypoint's primary business is in wireless location for E-911 services. It's pushing a combination of voice technology for input, voice synthesis for output, and SMS -- short messaging service.

SMS is already a popular service in Europe and Asia, but mostly among teenagers. The system was originally developed for alphanumeric pagers and supports sending text messages (no formatting) up to 160 characters. Several phone carriers (NTT DoCoMo's iMode in Japan and several GSM carriers in Europe) began including it as a feature in cell phones last year. Teens picked up on it as a cool way to send instant messages to each other -- but it hasn't migrated upstream to business and other adult users, who don't have the patience to key in 160-character messages on a 10-key pad.

SMS may be all right, but why stop there? Gopher and WAIS were impressive in their day, but HTML buried them. Similarly, the people at Phone.com say we're ready to move to a next level that will support markup, interactivity, and security for transactions.

SMS has limited interactivity, according to Phone.com's Roger Snyder. In effect, you're fetching streams of text. WML (the wireless markup language) and its accompanying WMLScript (with some features similar to Javascript) allow forms and input validation (in other words, if it's asking you for a number, it won't accept a name).

WML also offers some display options like font and table control and the ability to display small graphics -- like a map of traffic congestion, generated on the fly. In fact, Snyder says the only argument not to upgrade is the cost of the handset. What's a few hundred dollars a year to upgrade to the latest model for technophiles who want to stay on the cutting edge?

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