shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
WAP's Closed Door Approach

Thanks to the wireless application protocol (WAP), the telephone and
the PC are going to collide this year, and it's not going to be
pretty. The problem with "wireless everywhere" is that the PC and the
phone can't fuse into the tidy little converged info-appliance that
pundits have been predicting for years, because while it's easy to
combine the hardware of the phone and the PC, it's impossible to
combine their philosophies. 
 
The phone-based assumptions about innovation, freedom, and commercial
control are so different from those of the PC that the upcoming battle
between the two devices will be nothing less than a battle over the
relationship of the Internet to its users. 
 
The philosophy behind the PC is simple: Put as much control in the
hands of the user as you possibly can. PC users can install any
software they like; they can connect their PCs to any network; they
can connect any peripherals; they can even replace the operating
system. And they don't need anyone's permission to do any of these
things. The phone has an equally simple underlying philosophy: Take as
much control from the user as possible while still producing a useable
device. Phones allow so little user control that users don't even
think of their phones as having operating systems, much less software
they can upgrade or replace themselves. The phone, in other words, is
built around principles of restriction and corporate control of the
user interface that are anathema to the Internet as it has developed
so far. 
 
WAP extends this idea of control into the network itself, by
purporting to offer Internet access while redesigning almost every
protocol needed to move data across the wireless part of the
network. WAP does not offer direct access to the Internet, but instead
links the phone to a WAP gateway which brokers connections between the
phone and the rest of the Net. The data that passes between the phone
and this WAP gateway is translated from standard Internet protocols to
a kind of parallel "W*" universe, where HTML becomes WML, TCP becomes
WTP, and so on. The implication is that the W* world is simply
wireless Internet, but in fact the WAP Forum has not only renamed but
redesigned these protocols. WML, for example, is not in fact a markup
language but a programming language, and therefore much more difficult
for the average content creator to use. Likewise, WAP designers choose
to ignore the lesson of HTML, which is so adaptable precisely because
it was never designed for any particular interface. 
 
Familiar principles

The rationale behind these redesigns is that WAP allows for error
checking and for interconnecting different kinds of networks. If that
sounds familiar, it's because these were the founding principles of
the Internet itself, principles that have proven astonishingly
flexible over 30 or so years and are perfectly applicable to wireless
networks. The redesign of the protocol lets the WAP consortium blend
the functions of delivery and display so the browser choice is locked
in by the phone manufacturer. (Imagine how much Microsoft would like
to have pulled off that trick.) No matter what the technical arguments
for WAP are, its effect is to put the phone companies firmly in
control of the user. The WAP consortium is determined that no third
party will be able to reach the user of a wireless device without
going through an interface that one of its member companies controls
and derives revenue from. 

The effects of this control can be seen in a recent string of
commercial announcements. Geoworks intends to enforce its WAP patents
to extract a $20,000 fee from any large company using a WAP gateway
(contrast the free Apache Web server). Sprint has made licensing deals
with companies such as E-Compare to distribute content over its
WAP-enabled phones (imagine having to negotiate a separate deal with
every ISP to distribute content to PC users). Nokia announced it will
use WAP to deliver ads to its users' phones (imagine WorldNet
hijacking its subscribers' browsers to serve them ads.) By linking
hardware, browser, and data transport together far more tightly than
they are on the PC-based Internet, the members of the WAP Forum hope
to create artificial scarcity for content, and avoid having to offer
individual users unfettered access to the Internet. 
 
In the short run this might work because WAP has a head start over
other protocols for wireless data. In the long run, though, it is
doomed to fail because the only thing we've ever seen with the growth
characteristics of the Internet is the Internet itself. The people
touting WAP over the current PC-based methods of accessing the
Internet want to focus on phone hardware versus PC hardware 



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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source