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The WAP Flap

One of the most widely covered issues in the wireless communications industry in 1997 was how to get wireless handsets to tap into the Internet. Several companies, including the three marketshare leaders, Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola, were pretty sure they had the answer in something called the Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP, which these companies helped develop as a nonproprietary, global technical specification. WAP would enable wireless service subscribers to access Web-based information from mobile or portable cellphones or PDAs.

It sounded pretty good at the time. WAP meant the wireless Internet was here. We could now access the Internet from just about anywhere and at anytime. You couldn't open a business publication or even many daily newspapers without readying something about this wonderful new development that would make our lives so much more productive. Using a WAP-enabled wireless device, you could check the traffic en route to the airport. If traffic is going to hold you up, you could check the train schedule and then purchase a train ticket online instead of driving. On the way to the airport, you could select your seat, check in for the flight, and reserve a special meal. You could also use WAP for message notification and call management, e-mail, mapping and locator services, weather alerts, news, sports, e-commerce transactions, and banking services.

Cellular phone and other equipment manufacturers were drawn to WAP because it had the potential to generate the critical mass needed for them to open up new product and service opportunities in wireless communications—actually generate new revenue by getting people to spend more time on their cellphones. Network operators supported WAP because it seemed to have minimal risk and investment, and they thought it would help operators decrease churn (keep people from switching wireless carriers, usually for a cheaper plan or more free "airtime" hours), cut costs, and increase revenues by improving existing value-added services and adding new services.

It looked like it couldn't miss, especially with so many of the top telecom companies teaming up to develop and promote the technology. So, why did so many industry analysts and users start referring to WAP as "What A Pain?" And why have there been so many articles like the one in Wireless Week that started with sentence, "Is the Wireless Application Protocol dead?" under a headline, "Warning to WAP: Reinvent Or Waste Away."

David Haskins, the managing editor of the online AllNetDevices news service, wrote in July 2000: "Will consumers embrace WAP or is it just another example of over-hyped BWC (Because We Can) technology that the public will ignore?"

Another industry magazine, America's Network, was equally uncharitable after conducting a "WAP Test Drive." It wrote, "Using a WAP service is like using the Internet in 1995. You know it's a great idea and you really want to try it out. But when you actually test it, you find that you don't really want to do it again."

Phone.com, a leading proponent and early WAP pioneer, claimed that 100,000 software developers had registered for its WAP developer program and more than 500 companies were actively participating in the WAP Forum, formed in 1998, presumably spending millions collectively to bring WAP-based products to market. But few people were actually using WAP. And those who were, weren't exactly thrilled by it.

In its defense, some analysts and industry supporters suggested that WAP offered a different paradigm for accessing the Web from a PC in the office or at home. That's true, but it got more complicated, with highly publicized complaints that data retrieval was slow, that applications and services were lacking, that WAP was often difficult to navigate, and that cellphone and PDA screens are simply too small for any reasonable text-driven application. The Nielsen Norman Group said after conducting a survey in London, that WAP usability is "failing miserably." Nielson Norman said, "Companies shouldn't waste money fielding WAP services that nobody will use while WAP usability remains so poor. Instead, they should sit out the current generation of WAP while planning their mobile Internet strategy." The WAP Forum, the technologies' support group, quickly pointed out that the study was based on only 20 users and "lacks the basis on which to draw any meaningful conclusions." It didn't help that another market study published by Forrester Research in mid-2000 pointed out that 72% of U.S. households have no interest in receiving data on their wireless phones and 75% are uncomfortable with wireless e-commerce. (As of the end of 2000, the WAP Forum estimated there were more than 40 million WAP-enabled devices in circulation. The organization could not say at the time how many of these handsets subscribers are actually using WAP, but they guessed that it was in the four to five million range.)

WAP took another public flogging in Europe when articles began to appear that anyone using a GSM phone (Global System for Mobile Communications is the digital cellular standard used throughout Europe and part of the United States) didn't actually need WAP. They could get similar results with SMS (Short Messaging Service), which is popular in Europe for delivering text to pagers.

The Meta Group, another market research organization, put WAP's principal developer, Openwave Systems, on the defensive when it reported that as many as 90% of corporate users that purchased WAP-enabled phones have abandonded the data capabilities of these phones. According to Meta, limited content, slow networks, and generally poor user ergonomics have not met the high user expectations and hype that accompanied WAP-enabled devices when they were first introduced.

WAP also faced competition in Japan from i-mode, a hugely popular wireless Internet-level system, developed by the country's largest mobile carrier, NTT DoCoMo. Introduced in the spring of 1999, i-mode at one point was adding more than 40,000 new subscribers a day in Japan and claimed 17 million users by the end of 2000. To call i-mode a cash cow for NTT DoCoMo is a disservice to the company: Just one of its many unbundled features, sending a cartoon to subscribers every day for a monthly fee of about $1, generates more than $120 million annually for NTT.

Like WAP, i-mode enables users to access e-mail and Internet services with wireless phones and computers. Unlike WAP, i-mode is based on packet data technology, which means that it is always online; you do not have to dial up every time you want access to the Internet or e-mail. Using packet technology also means that i-mode users are charged only for the information they receive, not for how long they stay online. (I-mode also represents a cultural breakthrough. It was bound to be a success, analysts like to point out, because in contrast to the United States, where PC market penetration is huge, the wireless Web is pretty much the only experience the Japanese have with the Internet.) The difficulties with WAP and the success of i-mode have led to growing interest in i-mode outside Japan, mainly in Europe. NTT DoCoMo could also expand the use of i-mode through joint ventures with U.S. wireless operators—AT&T Wireless has licensed i-mode, giving it a potentially strong jump-start in the United States—a particularly interesting prospect if WAP doesn't begin to gain wider acceptance in the United States. Some wireless carriers have talked about supporting both WAP and i-mode. Yet another possibility kicked around the industry is that WAP will be replaced by the Java programming language from Sun Microsystems, which abstracts data on bytecodes so that the same code runs on any operating system. In fact, i-mode will eventually allow users to tap into Java technology, providing even more services to i-mode subscribers.

Another issue lurking in the background, and one that doesn't instill a lot of confidence in wireless manufacturers who are asked to invest in these things, is, who owns the technology? While WAP has been originally promoted as an "open" protocol, Geoworks, a specialist in wireless data communications services and technologies, told the WAP Forum and its members in May 1999 that its patented technology is "employed as essential technology" in the WAP standard and that it planned to license this technology. Phone.com challenged Geoworks' patents as invalid. However, Ericsson, Matsushita Electric (the parent company of Panasonic), Toshiba, and others have lent some credibility to Geoworks' patent claim when they signed a cross-licensing arrangement giving them the right to use Geoworks' WAP technology.

This is also about content. Analysts believe that as the number of practical applications available to WAP users grows, WAP will begin to gain a following. WAP may also find broad acceptance as a sales representatives' automation tool with WAP-enabled phones for checking customer information, checking inventories, and tracking order status while on the road.

Can more than 500 companies be wrong? The jury (in this case, the market) is still out, but the same question is being asked about Bluetooth.

Is WAP an interim technology? Even many of the most objective industry observers don't believe so. WAP will continue to add popular features such as TCP/IP, multimedia, and color graphics, but WAP device owners will still have to contend with tiny keyboards and displays—at least until voice recognition technology and virtual displays, which magnify 2-inch screens into what appear to be 17-inch displays, make huge leaps into portable communications products.

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