WAP: What About the Past?

Operators and content providers could be in for a WAP-slap later this year. The millions that those companies have spent on developing initial WAP services may effectively have been money down the drain, because the WAP 2 specification makes legacy support an optional extra.

Last year, the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) Forum Ltd., the industry body in charge of the specification, said that more than 130 carriers had deployed the technology and that there were 8 million users worldwide. However, it is possible that this installed base could be slowly disenfranchised with the advent of WAP 2 services later this year. The WAP Forum had originally said that legacy support was an essential part of the spec. However, it appears to have reconsidered.

This is what Alastair France, global applications consulting manager for Openwave Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: OPWV), one of the parents of the WAP specification, had to say on the matter of backwards compatibility on the company’s European developers’ site: “It seems that back-room pressures have been brought to bear, and WML [wireless markup language] compatibility is now ‘optional’ for devices to claim WAP 2 compliance. Sadly we're all too familiar with what ‘optional’ has meant in the past. It has basically been waving a big sign with ‘ignore me’ written on it.”

Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) told Unstrung that its first WAP 2 compatible handset – which will also be its first Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service (UMTS) terminal – is due in the second half of this year. However, Motorola could not say whether it will support the older WAP specification on its UMTS handset. If the mobile phone vendors do not offer backwards compatibility on new handsets, then the various versions of WAP 1 are effectively dead in the water as people replace their phones.

The WAP specification is a system that, in its simplest form, is designed to deliver Weblike content, originally using WML, formatted so it can to be read via a microbrowser on the tiny screen of a handset, over a cell phone network. WAP 1 services originally became available in 1999; since then the WAP Forum has grown in size to more than 600 companies.

WAP 2.0, which was first announced in August 2001, is an important upgrade to the specification. Specifically, it is tailored for faster, packet-based cell phone networks, such as General Packet Radio Services (GPRS) and UMTS, and supports a new scripting language, EXtensible HTML (XHTML), which combines HTML and EXtensible Markup Language (XML).

This should help to answer some of the complaints about the current generation of WAP. Services should load faster and be quicker because of the “always-on” network connection. Using XHTML as its standard markup language should mean that more WAP content will be available to users, although companies and content developers wishing to make applications and content available to users will still need to do some degree of content reformatting to make the data readable on the handset.

It’s hard to know exactly how many WML sites are currently out there. It could be as many as 25,000, although how many of these actually work is anyone’s guess. However, by making compliance optional, the WAP forum could be forsaking a useful legacy while carriers ramp up WAP 2 services.

The WAP Forum had not returned Unstrung’s calls by press time.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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