WAP: The Technology That Wasn't
by Brian Dunning
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Williams BMW cars had both made an extra pit stop for wet tires
now that the rain was coming down, while series points leader Michael
Schumacher, driving the Ferrari, was still out on his first set
of dries. He had to pit soon: if he made the right tire choice,
the race lead would be his, and a record sixth championship assured.
"Quick, Dan," I said, "get on your Internet phone and
see what the weather's going to do."
Dan fiddled and fussed for a few minutes, occasionally grunting
or grimacing, trying to type URLs on a one-inch screen, trying
to scroll past ads and banners and irrelevant content through a
desperately slow connection. We waited, and waited...the Ferrari
made two pit stops and threw away a golden opportunity...and by
the time Dan finally gave up and flipped his phone closed, nobody
cared what the weather was going to do anymore. The Ferrari strategists
were probably throwing their own WAP phones into the trash at that
"You know what WAP stands for?" asks Marc Andreesen,
Netscape pioneer and sage of the Internet. "It's the sound
a WAP cell phone makes when you throw it in the wastebasket."
Whether they go under the guise of WAP (wireless access protocol),
i-mode (Japan's version), or XHTML-Basic (one of those Microsoft
standards that nobody ever heard of), internet enabled cell phones
just never did catch on. According to Jupiter Research, fewer than
two percent of people who own WAP phones have ever tried accessing
the Internet with them.
So why did such a cool, promising technology die?
It never really lived to begin with. Maybe it's because nobody
ever did come out with a half-usable browser for cell phones. Maybe
it's because no web sites ever found a way to boil their sites'
content down to such a tiny size. Maybe it's because the content
people look to the Internet for can't be decently presented on
a one-inch screen. Or maybe it's because that's not what cell phones
are for. I don't barbecue hamburgers on my car's grill; why would
I surf the Internet on my phone when I have a perfectly good computer
on hand that does it a million times better?
Form factor. If something clearly isn't suited for a purpose,
as demonstrated by its obvious physical dimensions, you're not
going to convince people that it is. Nobody will turn a Mini Cooper
S into a city bus no matter how good you tell them it will be.
How about web browsers in cars? Sure, just like you might build
a piano into the dash.
Last year, I was engaged to edit a new column by a company that
was bringing out two new wireless sites. I was all set to have
people the world over reading my stuff on their cell phones. I
expected to stroll through airports and shopping malls and see
everybody reading my column. After six months I asked what the
deal was: where were the sites? "Well, we're working on it,
hasn't come together yet..." And then, a month or two later,
a sad shake of the head told me that the sites were dead. Nobody
was buying ad space on wireless sites because there is no traffic.
Will the situation improve? Doubtful, since the trend in cell
phones is to go even smaller. Nobody wants to carry around a brick.
Nevertheless, it's still hard to buy a cell phone these days that
lacks Internet capability. Don't give up hope, but also don't spend
too much time trying to learn WML (Wireless Markup Language) or
CHTML (Compact HTML). Just because 25 college students can fit
into a phone booth, doesn't mean that's what next year's dormitories
will look like.