Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly Reality Check column. We’ve gathered a group of visionaries and veterans in the mobile industry to give their insights into the marketplace.
Try searching the Internet for “WAP is dead” and you will see 328,000 matches. Scroll through a few pages of the search results and among the recent links only a week old, you will also see articles, blog posts and rants dating back to 1999. Some of the titles are definitive: “WAP is Crap.” Others are hackneyed: “WAP is dead. Long live WAP.” Some are sarcastic: “WAP is dead. Not.” A few are contemplative: “Is WAP dead?” Taken as a whole, they are an expression of the frustration shared by developers, consumers and carriers about a technology that has never quite been good enough to live up to expectations of “surfing the mobile Web.” The unfunny joke here is that WAP was dead on arrival, but lacking a better alternative, it survives. But really now, for how much longer?
This time for sure
The convergence of several trends in the mobile space make me comfortably certain of my conviction that WAP is a sun-setting technology, quickly being replaced by something better. With its iPhone, Apple proved that a vibrant community of developers will create applications even for a device with comparatively few users if the friction is low enough. With the whole system controlled from end to end, much of the friction goes away. Here is what the process looks like:
1. Download the SDK.
2. Make your application.
3. Submit application to app store.
4. Get downloads, make money (maybe).
While it is true that the Apple SDK comes with a learning curve, it still represents a much lower barrier to entry for developers. And so it is no surprise that we are seeing app store mania:
–iPhone App Store.
–Google Android Marketplace.
–RIM Blackberry App Store.
–Windows Mobile Skymarket.
–Adobe something or other.
Plus several individual carriers have announced upcoming app stores.
Very soon, iPhone-like application provisioning will reach the feature phone market, and the billion or so devices sold every year will no longer have a crappy WAP browser as the only way to access mobile data. Apps will evolve and become part of the UI.
While that one trend alone may be enough to supplant WAP on all but the lowest of low-quality devices, there are two other trends that lend support. One is the arrival of the Massively Networked Application, and the other is UI Integration.
Facebook taught the mobile industry a lesson when it created the Facebook Platform. It was apparently the result of the realization that Facebook is basically a bunch of users in one place all communicating with each other, and that enabling developers to create applications to slice and dice that communication in different ways would be a good thing. They were right, and Facebook is more useful because of it.
Then some carriers and device manufacturers realized that their business is similarly a bunch of users in one place all communicating with each other, and that enabling developers to create applications to slice and dice that communication in different ways would be a good thing. The new goal is not necessarily to enable a third-party social networking site, but rather to view the network of users as the social network and to enable applets to augment the network. This requires a level of integration that cannot be accomplished via a WAP browser. Envision a sort of “Facebook Platform” as an extension to every Samsung mobile phone such that third-party applets can be added from an app store so that users can customize their communication interface. So on top of simplified app store provisioning, there is a clear motivation to add Massively Networked Applications on top of the various very large user bases shared by OEMs, carriers and OS providers alike. The race is on, and that means innovation is coming soon.
Now take the concept of communication applications to its logical extension and you will envision the device UI evolving from something that acts like a static desktop to something that acts more like your Facebook profile, but without the Facebook. Rather than launching an application at a time, you will be able to customize your phone’s user interface itself to include communication-enhancing applets like chat windows, community games, photo sharing and polls. Why go to a browser on your phone when your phone itself integrates all the functionality tightly with everything? These apps will integrate the camera or extend the PIM or utilize LBS to offer consumers novel ways to communicate beyond voice and text. These are all things that cannot be accomplished with WAP and require an application layer to interface meaningfully to the device.
Smart companies see this future and are embracing it. I will again mention Facebook as an example, having integrated meaningfully into INQ’s Social Mobile device, which is an early embodiment of the trends I mentioned. This is the future. Imagine how quickly the mobile space is about to evolve.
I will admit that the wheels of our industry turn slowly, and that WAP will linger around for years to come, even as it continues its slide into its status as a comparative technological slum. The real innovation is happening elsewhere, and the really innovative companies recognize this simple fact. Working in concert toward the same enlightened self interest, the world’s OEMs, carriers and infrastructure providers will in a very short time revolutionize the mobile user experience by redefining the entire value chain from service provisioning to user interface. Along the way, we might just finally kill WAP, too.