WAP whackers

Will the wireless Internet take off? I still think some day, some day it has to. But, is it going to be on handsets powered by WAP, no. The real battleground for the wireless net will be on PDAs like the Palm and PocketPC.

Let me tell you why Wireless Access Protocol is going to fall flat on its fat face: it doesn't work. Don't believe me? Maybe you'll believe Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group (www.nngroup.com). Nielsen's made a reputation for himself by being the expert on the user experience. He and his group judge technologies not by technical metrics or marketing hype, but by how real users feel about really using a technology. And real users really don't like WAP.

In his group's latest study, Deja Vu: 1994 All Over Again, they took a small group, gave them WAP phones - Ericsson R320s and Nokia 7110es to be precise - and told them to do simple tasks with them. You know, check on the weather, look at the day's headlines, see what's on television tonight, all the things people would want do with a portable Internet access device. Then, they let them have the devices for a week and asked them to do it all again. And what did they find?

They found in London, a city much more WAP friendly than anywhere in the States, that a whopping 70% said they wouldn't want to use a WAP phone anytime in the next year.

It doesn't take long to see why. It took the users after a week's experience, almost 50 seconds to get the headlines, over a minute and a half to see when the Simpsons were on; and almost two minutes to see if it was raining outside.

I did my own test. I took today's Washington Post and found that getting the headlines took about .5 seconds, finding out that the Simpsons were on the local Fox station at 6 PM took 3 second and finding out that tomorrow was going to be cold took about 20 seconds because I was distracted by a Christmas sale ad. Oh yeah, WAP is going to do a lot for me.

That said, the Nielsen Norman Group does expect the wireless, handset Internet to take off, but not in 2001. Try a few more years, and then it will go gangbusters.

Boy doesn't that sound familiar? I just looked up the first piece I ever did on wireless back in 1992 and they all promised that wireless data would be big business, well not next year, but real soon now. Yeah. Right.

There are differences of course. Nielsen puts the blame squarely on really awful interfaces, and I'm sure he's right. Simply attempting to bring full Web pages to the wireless Web by doing straight translations of HTML to Wireless Markup Language either by hand or by Web server applications is doomed to fail. I also, however, blame poor bandwidth. When you max out at 16.8 Kbps throughput, even plain old text can be a chore.

In theory, 3G wireless, another real soon now wireless technology, will solve that problem by making it possible to transmit data at broadband speeds. But, even with that, even with intelligent design, is WAP really going to go anywhere?

On handsets, the Internet phone, I don't think it is. ISVs tell me that this open standard is clogged with proprietary extensions that make it a true pain to develop real world devices. NTT DoCoMo is moving into the States with its purchase of a chunk of AT&T wireless and its own proprietary, but proven, I-Mode wireless net technology.

Let's cut to the chase, when people think wireless Web they think they're going to be getting the Web in its full glory. Wrong. What they get are midget displays that are only good for displaying short text bursts. As pagers have already shown, that's great for stock quotes, the weather, headlines, and sports scores, but it's not that exciting and it's already been done.

Will the wireless Internet take off? I still think some day, some day it has to. I hate hunting for a phone jack on trips and I know millions of other business people agree with me.

But, is it going to be on handsets powered by WAP, no. The real battleground for the wireless net will be on PDAs like the Palm and PocketPC, devices with room for a decent display, not handsets. And, WAP, thanks to poor deployments, poor designs, standard breaking, and competition from I-Mode, isn't going to be the technology that brings the wireless web to your PDA.