Playing with WAP

November 27th, 2003 Comments Off on Playing with WAP

Recently I bought a new cell phone: a Siemens C55. After I had my first cell phone stolen, I didn’t immediately buy another because I didn’t need it at the time. I used it too little to justify the cost. However, when I started working for a new company I’m with now, I quickly realized I would need one because of the way the company operates. So I yielded to the need and bought one.

The C55 is a nice cell phone. In those few weeks since I’ve bought it, I found out that it delivers all I need from a cell phone, which is a bit more than just talking and much less than the PDA-like features you see in many phones today. As a cell phone, it has everything I need and some more — after all, who needs polyphonic ringer tones? As an Internet connection accessory — considering its price range — I was fairly impressed with its capabilities.

I was never much interested in WAP before. When the technology appeared, being heralded as the next revolutions in communications, it was too limited and costly to matter to me. Now, after I bought the C55, I’m finding it interesting to have the possibility to connect to Internet through the cell phone. Of course, I’m now much more involved with Internet than I was at the time, and that counts as well. Also, with the introduction of GMS technology in Brazil, access via GPRS has become possible. GPRS is a new technology that allows faster, cheaper and always-on access to the Internet through telephony networks replacing the traditional WAP transport protocols.

The main advantage of using WAP over GPRS in the phone company I’m subscribed to is that I’m charged not for the time I remain connected, but for the amount of data I transfer. They’ve even got a small access plan that allows 2 MB of transfer each month, which, surprisingly, allows one to do a lot of things for a comparatively low price.

With all those possibilities, I started experimenting with WAP and, so far, the results have been mixed.

The first thing I discovered is that proper WAP content is very limited. Although the services provided are rather varied, they are of the most common kind. You can find games, news, quotes and similar things, but that’s also pretty much all that there’s to find. There is no WAP Web so to speak.

On the other hand, if you are using GPRS, you can connect to any site that provides WAP content regardless of it being part of the service network of the phone company or not, which increases the possibility of finding more interesting services.

From there, I found that Google, for instance, has a WAP interface (do a search and change the invoked CGI, search, to wml). You can do any search through its WAP service and browse the sites returned by the search. Google automatically converts the site contents from HTML to WML, allowing easy access to their content, most likely, using its own cache. With Google’s help, I was able to access almost any site in the Internet.

Obviously, the first problem with that approach is accessibility. Even my site, with I previously thought to fare very well in that area, was a bit of a mess in the phone screen. You can understand and navigate through the site, but it’s not much practical. Any site that uses complex markup, without obeying to accessibility guidelines will be pretty much unusable.

Other interesting services, like dictionaries and translators, can be accessed via WAP, but they are more rare. Utilities like checking your bank account, find the next showing of a movie and automatically buying a ticket for it are possible as well.

That configures a simple access profile that is confined to what you may eventually need in places where you don’t have your computer at hand. For example, I often write on paper, far from the computer. It’s easier to check a word in English (my second language) in the cell phone than boot the computer to do it.

Of course, those are very simple things. Cell phones are far from becoming fully featured PDAs. In Brazil, they are still more of luxury items than common accessories. A cell phone that works like a PDA is still too costly, and in most cases, the existing options are still too far from the reality of a true computer system. It doesn’t matter that you can take photos with your cell phone if you can’t post them to your blog afterwards, or, that you can but it’s too difficult and costly.

In short, I think WAP has many possibilities. But it may take a long time for those possibilities to become a reality and, by that time, another technology may have already supplanted it. Even WML, the language used to create WAP applications, is too restricted for most complex applications. Many of those restrictions exist because of limits of the hardware itself both in processing power and usability. The cell phone market is much more directed to the physical platform than to the operational platform. As long as this focus persists, I fear the options will also remain inadequate to the needs of the users.

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