The market for Net access over cell phones, while still young, is attracting huge amounts of attention, from Wall Street to mainstream shopping malls. A study this week from Cap Gemini America optimistically predicted that a full 78 percent of Net subscribers would be tapping into the wireless Internet as soon as next year.
Powerful players such as Microsoft, Nokia and Phone.com are lining up to push the technology in different directions, in a fight that will determine what mobile Net access will look like, and which companies will dominate this market.
Dubbed "WAP," or the Wireless Access Protocol, the mobile data technology is what makes Web content available on cell phones' tiny screens.
But because it was developed specifically for these devices, it's not compatible with much of the technology that underlies the current Web. That's creating two versions of the Internet, driving a wedge between the wired and the wireless world--and that doesn't make any sense for cell phone subscribers, critics say.
"In essence, WAP creates a parallel Internet and limits the content end users are able to get," said Jane Zwieg, vice president of wireless research firm Herschel Shosteck Associates. "End users are used to getting whatever content they want."
Starting from scratch?
Whatever the criticisms, the wireless Web is still in its infancy. Only a few companies offer the ability to surf remote Web sites over a cell phone, and the bugs are still being worked out with the technology. But analysts are bullish on the notion. International Data Corp. predicts that close to 1.3 billion people worldwide will be plugged in to Web-capable phones by 2004, compared to just 700 million people with ordinary Net connections.
The WAP technology was largely developed by Phone.com--once called Unwired Planet--and the big three cellular phone equipment makers, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola. The companies were looking for a way to send content over slow networks and allow it to be displayed on the two-inch screens common to most mobile phones.
That meant stripping out most of what the graphics-heavy Web was becoming. But the companies didn't stop there. They based the new standard on something called Extensible Markup Language or XML, which is related but not identical to the language used to create most Web sites.
Phone.com has ridden this early work to a dominant role in the young industry. Its Web browsing software for phones and for networks is now used in most of the major wireless telephone networks that offer wireless data access.
The technology gained even enough early support to be able to steam-roll an attempt by Microsoft to pull the industry in a new direction. Microsoft's original mobile phone browser was built to support just the technology that underlies the existing Web, not WAP. But as carriers adopted the coalition's work, Microsoft was forced to follow suit, making its newest browser support both.
Digging in their heels
Nevertheless, Microsoft hasn't given up its quest to move the wireless world in a new direction. It's now working with the WAP Forum and the hundreds of other companies to push the technology to a quick convergence with the original Web--a development that would incidentally help the company take advantage of the way its Web, wireless and PC computer products all work together.
"We don't think it makes sense to ask sites to author their content twice and support two parallel standards for Internet access," said Pat Fox, director of marketing for Microsoft's wireless division.
Other companies too are eschewing the WAP train, at least for now.
Chief among these is the current giant in the field of wireless data, Japan's NTT DoCoMo. The country's largest phone carrier has 5.6 million people using its iMode wireless data service, which already offers color and video over many phones. And it's not WAP based; it uses a simplified version of HTML, the ordinary Web's technology. A company spokesman said NTT DoCoMo will offer WAP services in the future, however.
A small but vocal cadre of start-ups has also set itself against the developing WAP orthodoxy. Xypoint, a Seattle firm that provides access to email, stock trades and auction bids over cell phones, says it has deliberately based its service on the two-way text messaging system popular in Europe instead of the WAP.
"We took a hard look at WAP and found the user experience to be awful," said Tim Zenk, a company spokesman.
The critics cite a few problems. WAP is different than the Web, so Internet companies have to rewrite their sites in order to attract wireless visitors. That's an expensive process. There are security questions about the protocol, though these are being addressed quickly. And many say it's clunky, making it difficult to make a wireless Web site easy to use.
"There are definitely limiting things about it that make it difficult to design a really usable application," said Sadhana Joliet, Yahoo's wireless product producer.
Finding its feet
Even WAP's defenders concede many of these points. But they chalk these drawbacks up to the technology's youth, reminding critics that the Web itself was very primitive just a few years ago.
"Tell me the Internet was cool and super all those years ago," says Iain Gillot, an analyst with International Data Corp. "It wasn't. It was a disaster."
The tug of war over Phone.com's technology, with Microsoft and the start-ups on the other side, will be played out when the standards bodies hash out what the next version of WAP and other languages look like and how well they work together.
But that under-the-hood decision will help determine the next Web's giants. Microsoft is betting that it can ultimately persuade carriers to use its wireless infrastructure software, which will help it move its business and consumer products into the wireless world more easily.
For its part, Phone.com is expanding into other communications services such as unified messaging and voice recognition interfaces, hoping to build on its initial infrastructure successes to an even larger business. The company says the most basic elements of WAP will be merged with the technology of the Web, but that a separate technology will always be needed as phones lag behind computers' power.
"This year's phones are like DOS," said Ben Linder, Phone.com's director of marketing. "Next year's phones will be like the early Windows. This gap will continue."
And whatever the concerns and criticism, WAP does seem to have critical mass, analysts say. More than 300 companies are now working on its development, giving it the staying power it needs.
Yahoo, for one, says it's happy to work with the technology even if it has to rewrite pages using imperfect tools.
"It's great to have a standard," Joliet said. "Otherwise you wind up having to support a zillion different technologies."