WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) and Intellectual Property
WAP is in the air, both literally and figuratively. A mobile phone consortium called
Unwired Planet has been working on WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) since May of 1995 in
an effort to establish the foundation for the mobile phone's version of the Web. After
several false starts, that work seems to be bearing fruit this year: Nokia was caught
by surprise at the demand for its first WAP-enabled phone, Ericsson is right behind with
its model, and analysts are predicting that by 2002, more people will access the internet
through mobile phones than through PCs. However, we've got to be careful when we tout WAP
as the next major networking development after the Web itself, because it differs in two
crucial ways: the Web grew organically (and non-commercially) in its first few years, and
anyone could create or view Web content without a license. WAP, by contrast, is being
pushed commercially from the jump, and it is fenced in by a remarkable array of patents
which will affect both producers and consumers of WAP content. These differences put
WAP's development on a collision course with the Web as it exists today.
Even after years of commercial development, the Web we have is still remarkably cross-
platform, open to amateur content, unmanaged, and unmanageable, and it's tempting to
think that that's just what global networks look like in the age of the internet.
However, the Web is not just the story of the internet, it's also a story of the computing
ecology of the 1990's. The Web has grown up in an environment where hardware is radically
divorced from software: Anyone can install anything on their own PC with no interference
(or even knowledge) from the manufacturer. The ISP business operates with a total
separation of content and delivery: Internet access is charged by the month, not by the
download. And most important of all, the critical pair of protocols -- http and HTML --
were allowed to spread unhampered by intellectual property laws. The separation of these
layers meant that ISPs didn't have to co-ordinate with browser engineers, who didn't
have to co-ordinate with site designers, who didn't have to co-ordinate with hardware
manufacturers, and this freedom to innovate one layer at a time has been part and parcel
of the Web's remarkable growth.
None of those things are true with WAP. The integration of WAP software with the
telephone hardware is far tighter than it was on the PC. The mobile phone business
is predicated on charging either per minute or per byte, making it much easier to charge
directly for content. Most importantly, WAP's patents have been designed from the
beginning to prevent anyone from creating a way to get content onto mobile phones without
cutting the phone companies themselves in on the action, as evidenced by Unwired Planets
first patent in 1995, the astonishingly broad "Method and architecture for an interactive
two-way data communication network." WAP, in other words, offers a chance to rebuild the
Web, without all that annoying freedom, and without all that annoying competition.
Many industries have looked at the Web and thought that it was almost perfect, with two
exceptions -- they didn't own it, and it was too difficult to stifle competition.
Microsoft's first versions of MSN, Apple's e-world, the pre-dot-com AOL, were all
attempts to build a service which that grow like the Web but let them charge consumers
like pay-per-view TV. All such attempts have failed so far, because wherever
restrictions of either content creators or users were put in place, growth faltered in
favor of the freer medium. With WAP, however, we are seeing our first attempt at a
walled garden where there is no competition within a "freer" medium -- the Unwired
Planet patents cover every mobile device ever made, which may give them the leverage
to enforce its ideal of total commercial control of mobile internet access. If
predictions of the protocol's growth, ubiquity, and hegemony are correct, then WAP may
pose the first real threat to the freewheeling internet.