Everything You Wanted to Know About WAP, But Were Afraid to Ask

by David G. Propson

People talk about a technology revolution, but n the past 20 years there’s actually been at least three: the Internet, PCs, and cell phones.

Cell phones have already had an incredible effect on the way people work, play, and communicate ­ walk down a city street these days and you can’t be sure whether the guy jabbering on the corner is a madman talking to himself or a businessman talking to his broker. But nobody realized quite how useful PCs could be until they got hooked up to the Web, and were transformed from souped-up calculators into do-everything wonderboxes.

So just imagine what would happen if we could connect the omnipresent mobile network with the omnipotent Internet. All the information anyone could ever need would be at hand, immediately.

The clearest portent that this possibility’s getting closer is the buzz over what’s called Wireless Application Protocol, or for Batman fans, WAP. Essentially, WAP lets cell phones and PDAs swap data with Internet servers. It does this regardless of which wireless network the device uses and cooperates with all operating systems ­ a Palm user and a CE aficionado can access the same system because WAP gives them a common language.

So what will you do with your new Internet-connected phone? For the most part, everything that can now be done on a PC (though networked games may be a ways off). You’ll check e-mail, do research, and, it’s quite possible, have to look at ads. Whether it’s through the color display on a PDA, the four-line readout of a pager, or by talking into a cell phone ­ WAP will deliver the data.

Here’s a scenario that WAPers dream about. On the way to a business lunch, you tap into the company intranet via cell phone and listen to the WAP server read the latest info on the client. During the soup course, an unexpected topic comes up, so you play a short presentation from the server through your PDA ­ just as you would on a PC in the office. In both cases, WAP lets the mobile devices interact with the rest of the network.

At first, small businesses will mostly use services provided by third parties. Later, some may want to take it in house. But smart ones will wait, see what happens with the technology, watch for the cost to come down, and hope the kinks get worked out. For instance, proponents say WAP pages can be served by any standard Web server, but critics say early adopters may be in for a bumpy ride.

Because the Internet is driven by shared standards and protocols, companies often wage fierce battles for control. These can delay and even kill certain technologies. For a while, it seemed WAP would avoid this, but now that’s not certain.

The plotters of this revolution learned a lot from previous ones: Play nice, then stab one another in the back. In 1997, four wireless companies started work on WAP; now many more swear allegiance to it. But recently one partner, GeoWorks, announced plans to charge developers and manufacturers to license certain essential elements of the technology, which it has patented. This ploy, so late in the game, may stifle WAP’s spread and will certainly raise the price.

So in a few years we may be able to work together wirelessly ­ if the tech companies can work together now.

WAP Forum (www.wapforum.com) is the group that set the standard and now is trying to keep control of it. Since GeoWorks is now the ostensible patent-holder, you may also be interested in contacting them. In addition, any of the major phone manufacturers will also talk your ear off. The players include Nokia (888-665-4228, www.nokia.com) and Ericsson (919-472-7000, www.ericsson.com). Finally, Phone.com (650-562-0200, www.phone.com), which when it was known as Unwired Planet was the driving force behind WAP, is still a major player.

So check the Web or make a phone call, while those are still two different things.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.
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