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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Internet and new technology failures: WAP

Why another protocol?

In order to gain public awareness new technologies are now promoted as brands, by technological companies and organizations. However, often those technologies that receive the most hype die an early death while those that are launched with no fanfare gain mass acceptance.

Nowhere has this been more evident than with mobile phone technology. In Europe, the major mobile phone companies were unable to anticipate the success of SMS (short messaging service) text messaging. Indeed, some even failed to mention their phones included an SMS facility. As I explored in my previous book Mobile Marketing, mobile phone users were left to discover SMS for themselves – and discover it they did. In the UK alone, over 1 billion text messages are sent and received every single month.

In Mobile Marketing, I provided an overview of the technology’s popularity:

SMS, or the Short Messaging Service, was the first mainstream technology to enable short text messages to be sent from one mobile device to another. Devoid of colour, graphics, audio, video, and confined to 160 characters per message, SMS hardly seemed the most radical of new media technologies. Furthermore, people wanting to send an SMS text message had to work with small, fiddly mobile keypads and tiny grey screens.

Yet, for all its evident shortcomings, SMS became hugely popular and has inspired a whole generation of ‘textheads’, who have even conjured up their own SMS shorthand to overcome the character limit. Even among older users, SMS text messaging has proved to be a popular, less-intrusive and often cost-effective alternative to voice calls. While the mobile companies initially ignored this unassuming technology, they were very excited indeed about another three letter acronym: WAP.

WAP (wireless application protocol) was heralded as the first major global technology to make the mobile Internet a reality. And it was, although excessively slow download times and frequent connection failure along with many other usability shortcomings started to make people wonder if the wireless Web would be such a great thing anyway.

In 1999, the year WAP was being tweaked for launch in many countries, not a bad word could be found about this technology. Two years later headlines such as ‘The Great WAP flop’ and ‘RIP WAP’ were not uncommon in the European technology press.

One survey conducted in summer 2001 in the UK was especially telling. The BRMB study found that of the two-thirds of the population who owned a mobile phone, 85 per cent believed they had an SMS texting facility, while only 13 per cent said they had a WAP-enabled phone. Of that small number, only 37 per cent had used the WAP facility within the last month. Therefore most of those who were aware they were using a WAP device still didn’t believe the WAP facility was worth using. As Simon Rogers commented in the Guardian at around the same time (July 2001) ‘accessing a breaking news service using WAP just doesn’t replicate the usefulness of the net and is little more than another incremental improvement on your phone.’

WAP’s rough ride has been made even worse by the remarkable, and generally unpredicted, success of SMS. While WAP had been touted as a ‘killer app’ for wireless devices, the considerably less flashy SMS received little attention. When it suddenly emerged that in many parts of the world there were ten SMS users for every one WAP user, and that those SMS users were considerably more devoted than their weary WAP counterparts, it inevitably ruffled a few feathers.

The rumours regarding the death of WAP have been greatly exaggerated though as effective WAP applications have finally emerged. For most marketers however, WAP was something of a no-go area. The Financial Times has dubbed WAP marketing ‘the least interesting type of wireless marketing.’ To be fair, many of the problems with WAP are not really its fault. After all WAP is only a protocol, and not a bad one at that. However, the term WAP has extended to encompass the entire mobile Internet experience via WAP-enabled devices. And, up until now, that experience has been patchy to say the least.

As any brand strategist would agree, the success of a product or service depends not simply on its value, but rather its perceived value. So, whatever WAP will be able to offer mobile users in the future, the negative perception will take a while to erase. Even the WAP evangelists started to realize that it suffers from a certain public image problem. For instance, in 2002 the staunchly pro-WAP Web site WAPInsight ( conceded that ‘the signs are increasing that WAP as a brand name is dying’. The site reported the demise of the UK chain of retail stores run by MPC Telecom, called TheWAPStore, and said the ‘WAP’ element of the name sparked off negative associations among the public.

Whether WAP will disappear for good still remains to be seen and as more powerful mobile phones emerge the mobile Internet seems to have a positive future. However, the negative connotations of the WAP name means that a new acronym may have to be developed.

Lessons from WAP

  • Be useful. WAP has suffered from a distinct lack of content mobile users could find useful on a WAP-based wireless Web. Although many companies have experimented with WAP sites, information underload remained a problem.
  • Be simple. WAP has also suffered from comparisons with the more straightforward SMS. Unfavourable comparisons to Japanese I-mode technology have also added salt to WAP’s wounds.
  • Don’t overstate your case. The initial WAP hype, which reached its hyperbolic peak in 1999–2000, overstated its case. One UK operator’s campaign featuring a WAP-enabled surfboard, and many others like it, gave the impression of a mobile Internet ‘surfer’s paradise’. The protocol clearly couldn’t deliver on this promise.
  • Be user-friendly. Jakob Nielsen, ex-Sun Microsystems engineer and ‘guru of Web usability’ highlighted WAP’s ‘miserable usability’. In 2000, Nielsen advised businesses to ‘skip the current generation of WAP’. Slow connections and downloads for the first wave of WAP meant that mobile users downloading WAP sites (particularly those with graphics) had a lot of spare time on their hands.

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