WAP Will Fail

WAP will fail, because every single assumption it is built on is wrong. The instant someone delivers true, always-on internet to a handheld device, nobody will ever care about WAP again. And it will inevitably happen, because that’s what people want.


The WAP is built on the old-fashioned broadcast model as we know it from TV, a model that could be described as “TV with a buy button”. That model has nothing to do with the internet.

Telcos want tight control over the distribution pipeline, so they’ve made sure the individual user is tied in with his telco. You can only access the internet through their gateway, and you only get access to what they’ll allow you access to. And of course, that’s all about revenue. And sure, revenue is fine. But the telcos could get revenue simply by creating a portal, like Netscape and Microsoft has done, that will be the start page of the cell phone browser. Look at an announcement like the one between <a href=”http://www.ecompare.com/press.html”>E-compare and Sprint PCS. That shows so clearly that this is about telcos getting money for delivering customers (consumers) to companies, not the other way around.

What the telcos fail to see is that what generates value on the internet is exactly its openness. They’re trying once again to believe in the ideas that made Compuserver and the old AOL fail in favor of the internet. Companies and ecommerce sites didn’t create the internet itself, nor the internet takeup that we’ve been experiencing. When the network is open, as with the internet, users can get what they really want, because if nobody else delivers, they can do it themselves. But telcos want to control. After all, that’s what they’ve been used to doing for so long; it’s all they know.

People don’t primarily want to buy stuff. They want to connect to each other. They want to talk to each other, meet each other as real persons. That’s where the real explosion sets in, as it did for the internet. Think about it: The major attraction of <a href=”http://www.noamazon.com”>Amazon is not that you can buy books without leaving home, it is that you can learn what other normal people think about the book in question. The internet explosion is due to letting people meet around common interests and learn. There’s no reason that shouldn’t go wireless, and it will. But WAP is not the answer. Or rather, it’s the answer to the wrong question of How do we get money out of this?.

Here are some little facts about WAP to get you worried:

  • You have to agree to a licence agreement before being allowed to download the specs from <a href=”http://www.wapforum.org/what/technical.htm”>The WAP Forum, The internet never worked like that. Standards are free and want to be shared.

  • Those specifications are in PDF and not HTML. PDF is only good for printing, and you completely loose all the benefits of the internet, like being able to link to or from them, easy searching, etc.

  • Four of the 29 protocol docs are about push, an idea that failed miserably on the internet as a whole, because it’s completely contrary to everything the internet is all about. Push is marketing’s dream, not users’.

Constraints: Bandwidth, Screen Size, Memory, etc.

WAP is also built on assumptions about technical constraints. To quote from the spec (gosh, I hope they won’t sue me for doing that (I’d link if I could)):

  • Less powerful CPUs,
  • Less memory (ROM and RAM),
  • Restricted power consumption,
  • Smaller displays, and
  • Different input devices (eg, a phone keypad).

and then about the network itself:

  • Less bandwidth,
  • More latency,
  • Less connection stability, and
  • Less predictable availability.

These are all constraints that will inevitably go away! CPUs are getting more and more powerful, smaller and cheaper, memory is getting cheaper and smaller, batteries are lasting longer, getting better and cheaper, displays are getting better and cheaper, as will wireless network connection. Do you really want to base a whole new suite of protocols entirely on factors that will go away in a few years?

The network problems will also go away. First of all,

The only constraints that will not change is the size of our hands, heads and pockets (and I don’t mean metaphorically). Of course there are limitations to the size of the widget that we’re willing to carry around. And there’s a limit to how small the keyboard can be before we start hitting more than one key at a time. I don’t see what the input device has to do with design of the protocol. I do see that screen size matters, but surprisingly, the HTML was designed with exactly different display devices in mind, so that shouldn’t really be a problem.

The fact remains that existing protocols can do everything you need. There’s nothing in HTTP or HTML that prevent you from designing web sites that consume little bandwidth and will work with a small (and even text-only) screen. If you need to conserve even more bandwidth, you could probably tunnel them over some compression protocol without changing HTTP and HTML itself. And if the cell phone (or whatever we choose to call the device) would simply stay connected all the time, instead of having to establish a new connection each time the user wants to connect, that would help a lot on the initial latency. The cause of the problem is that the telcos still use a circuit-switched network technology, in contrast to the packet-switched nature of the internet.

The browser is free to not support Java and Javascript and plug-ins and all that crud. The HTTP already contains a user-agent header field whereby you let the server know that you’re on a limited, small-screen browser. If the website wants your business, they’d have to make sure their page will render properly on a small screen and wihtout the flashy stuff. Web publishers should already be doing that, so what’s the fuss?

The Japanese Way

Nobody doubts that having the internet available on you cell phone (as well as on you palm pilot) is an excellent idea, in fact, it’s inevitable. But WAP is, as I’ve made clear above, not the internet. It’s a proprietary set of protocols designed explicitly to take all the characteristics of the internet out before delivering it to the cell phone. The Japanese know what they’re doing.

NTT DoCoMo has launched the <a href=”http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_03/b3664013.htm”>i-mode phone, which

  • Is open by nature; DoCoMo does not play the gatekeeper role.

  • Builds on an packet-switched network like the internet.

  • Has considerably larger screens than most cell phones; the biggest one opens like a clamshell, thus allowing the screen to be twice the size of the gadget itself. It also renders graphics and colors.

The speed is still slow, but it’s quickly getting faster and faster.

Input devices will always be a problem, but this is not unique to cell phones. There are several attempts at solving this, e.g. overloading keys like in cell phones; writing with a pen like on the palm pilot; voice commands. And there are several others. Keep in mind also, that soft, foldable keyboards and <a href=”http://panopticon.ices.cmu.edu/design/FoldableDisplay.html”>displays are starting to appear. The internet device doesn’t have to look like a cell phone as we know it. In fact, why would it? After all, attaching a microphone and speaker with a distance of a few inches is all it takes to turn a hand-held internet device into a phone (oh yes, and of course some stuff inside as well, but that shouldn’t be a problem).

So let WAP die in peace. Nobody really wants it anyway. What we want is the internet delivered wireless to a handheld device. And will get that, sooner or later. When that happens, nobody will care about WAP.



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