"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 29 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

WAP, Bam, No Thank You, Ma'am


The evolution of the wireless application protocol — or "WAP," the method that most cellular devices use to communicate with the Internet — from long-touted pipe dream to widely released technology promises to be a profit windfall for the telecommunications industry — largely because anybody who uses the damned thing will have to replace their phone, once they smash it to bits in frustration. Heralded as the Second Coming of the Internet, WAP is an unmitigated disaster — a half-finished, half-assed service enthusiastically targeted at mainstream consumers without the reliability, convenience or price that those silly mainstream consumers have foolishly come to expect.

WAP sucks. WAP devices suck. Anybody with the initials "WAP" sucks. A capital "W" next to a capital "A" even kerns badly. WAP-enabled devices (and the acronym menagerie that goes along with them) combine the rock-solid reliability of the Internet with the rock-solid reliability of a cell phone. Plus per-minute usage charges, the elegant legibility of a calculator wristwatch and the handy convenience of a portable sink for hand-washing obsessive-compulsives. The act of offering WAP as a "feature" rather than "some sort of extravagant expression of self-hatred" should be considered fraud.

That such a pointless, gutless, brainless gob of standards-body sputum is being shotgunned at the public as the next, next, new, new thing demonstrates that wireless providers are so desperate for features that they're willing to slap a price tag on whatever emerges from their collective ass and shill it to the public at large. All the usual suspects — greed, stupidity, arrogance — are conspiring to push WAP on an ignorant populace, whether either is ready or not. The result is a train wreck, because WAP functions far better as a bad joke than as an emerging technology.

The problems are legion, miles wide and fathoms deep. There is no aspect of the protocol and its supporting and surrounding accouterments that are not plagued by woes: non-standard standards, lowest-common-denominator assumptions, fetal technology. And while there's plenty of technical hoo-ha you can throw at WAP — where it sticks, like darts in shit — the fundamental problems are at the consumer level: reliability, speed, usability, cost and the ultimate near-pointlessness of browsing anything while you're sitting at a bus stop.

There are some who will excuse each of these complaints by conveniently pointing the finger elsewhere — speed and reliability problems are networking issues, they say, and usability troubles come from the form factor of the telephone. But WAP is more than simply a protocol: It is the public face of wireless, the placeholder for a dozen other acronyms, and feeble technical excuses will do exactly nothing to mitigate the profoundly unsatisfactory experience that the whole mongrel family provides.

For all the ad dollars spent pushing the "wireless Internet" — a phrase that sounds better than the dropped-fish splat of "WAP" — you'd think that the cellular companies would make sure their networks, y'know, actually work. But the reliability of most WAP-serving connections is laughable. With wireless companies busy inventing new names for themselves to duck justly embarrassing reputations — GTE/Bell Atlantic, no, Verizon; SBC/Bell South, no, Cingular — the industry and its technology have all the reliability of someone fleeing a credit fraud charge.

Not that a stalled-out connection and a fully functioning one are easy to tell apart. The networks that deliver WAP are currently pegged at a soul-destroying 9600 baud, or six times as pokey as that miracle of technology, a 1997-era modem. Next generation WAP devices will tear along at twice that speed, or fully a third of what people already consider far, far too slow.

Of course, once the data has managed to crawl over the airwaves, it's well-nigh impossible to read. At fifteen characters wide by five lines high, a typical WAP-enabled phone holds the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only modern device out-resolutioned by a VIC-20. But extracting data is a sublime pleasure compared to entering it — the only way to type on a numeric keypad is to repeatedly press a number, cycling through its associated letters. The four-letter name of a particularly surly Web site becomes "77778822255," and that just 77778822255s.

And this grandly luxuriant experience is costing you, for every teeth-grinding second you spend on-line. While the wired on-line services managed to evolve out of per-minute connection fees some time in the Mesozoic, a WAP session is billed out the same as a cellular call, either as cash or as time off your plan. So while you wait — and wait, and wait — for the server to do you the favor of responding, for your eyes to noodle out LCD hieroglyphics, for your fat American fingers to squeeze out some four-letter response, money is draining out of your pocket, rounded up to the nearest minute. You pay for the privilege of downloading the spam in your in-box, so you can curse at it in the supermarket.

Of course, all these limitations and stupidities pale in the face of a single, unalterable fact: there is almost nothing that needs to be done on-line while you're not sitting at a desk. Cellular technology is ideally about messaging — communication — and the over-the-top "flexibility" that WAP devices provide stinks of run-rampant featuritis. The whole notion of "browsing" via a phone is insane, ignoring everything that makes the experience possible (even pleasurable) on a computer, save the actual to-and-fro of the data. But then sanity rarely enters into it when money is involved: The whole point of WAP seems to be as yet another commerce channel. One ad feebly touts the ability to bid at eBay while sitting in a waiting room; another sings the praises of never, ever being unable to shop. Ladies and gentlemen, the 21st Century: Nordstrom's through a pinhole. Rah.

WAP apologists compare the state of the service today with the Internet-at-large in 1994. But the Internet-at-large in 1994 was a smallish lab experiment, a physicist-ruled backwater inhabited by people willing to wear hip-waders to get around. WAP — in all its awful glory — is being offered up as a mainstream consumer service, something that grandma can use, by providers too stupid or greedy to know they're gibbering incompetents. Their wild over-promises reduce to outright lies and the protocol, the service, the whole idea are nowhere near ready. Even if, some happy day, bandwidth and display technologies give the public the wireless equivalent of Netscape 1.0, the current herd of WAP devices will have so effectively alienated anybody who blew precious minutes of their lives using them that all their crossed-heart assurances will be roundly and rightly ignored. WAP proponents and providers are so blinded by their paternity that they can't see the baby as the ugly, malformed thing it is.

But everybody else can, and the only WAP they're going to be interested in is the sound the hammer makes when it comes down.

Message us in today's Plastic discussion.

courtesy of Greg Knauss


pictures Terry Colon

Greg Knauss