The long wait for web phones

WAP is supposed to allow cell phones to wirelessly surf specially formatted Web sites. But WAP is nowhere near where we thought it would be at this stage.

If patience is a virtue, then I'm pretty saintly.

But you'd have to be Mother Teresa to wait for great things from Web phones.

The much-hyped Web phone concept relies on a standard called Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). But WAP may never succeed as hoped.

WAP is supposed to allow cell phones to wirelessly surf specially formatted Web sites. It already does this for some users in Europe (far fewer than most people think). Click for more. But WAP is nowhere near where we thought it would be at this stage.

Let's look at where WAP is getting tripped up.

THE TRUTH ABOUT WAP IN EUROPE
Cell phone technology in Europe is ahead of that in the U.S. Click for more.. Yet even in cell-phone crazy Europe, WAP is off to a slow start.

Low WAP usage. Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile unit reports that the average WAP phone goes online less than once a week, according to the Wall Street Journal. Only 1.3% of all of T-Mobile's subscribers actually use the service.

Slow delivery of WAP-enabled phones. Nokia, Ericcson and Motorola aren't delivering the hardware as rapidly as promised. They aren't certain the new models would work on existing networks.

Little value. WAP phone users say the features are unwieldy, the service inconsistent and the offerings lackluster.

THE STANDARDS HURDLE
I've warned you that wireless won't catch on quickly. One reason is lack of strong standards. WAP is one hammered out by an industry consortium. But consortium standards often fail. Here's why:

They're built for the low end. Consortium standards are made to accommodate the lowest common denominator. They're built for the worst technology, not the best.

They're slow in arriving. Anything built by committee is slow to develop. Especially a committee where every member has a private agenda.

They don't work well. That old joke "a camel is a horse designed by a committee" applies here.

Judging from the events in Europe, WAP is falling prey to all three shortcomings.

WHAT WAP SUPPORTERS SAY
WAP supporters are undaunted by the bumpy rollout in the U.S. and Europe and paint a rosy picture of WAP's future.

Protocol backers say WAP can be used on CDMA, TDMA or GSM -- different wireless technologies -- which means it can also be used all over the world. Click for more.

The Yankee Group says that by 2004, WAP-enabled handsets will number 5 million.

Industry execs say 70% of wireless devices will be WAP enabled by the end of this year.


WAP may show up on Web phones, or it may be superceded by another standard. Either way, you'll wait longer than expected for the wireless Web.

Hopefully not as long as I'll be waiting to hear from the Vatican about my sainthood.