Wap’s the point?

Do people buy Wap mobile phones for a terrible link to the Internet, or because the phones have a cool auto flip cover on the mouthpiece?

Thanks to the hype, Wap has become a word and is now officially part of the English language. Well done somebody. Last week The Oxford English Dictionary became the latest institution to respond to the heinous marketing overkill associated with Wap technology. So why is there still a need to spell out the fact that Wap – Wireless Application Protocol – is that loveless mobile phone technology that brings Web stuff to your handset?

Because, though the word is, as you know, mainstream, the product is certainly not – it is an awkward paradox. Hopefully, the word will now be confined to the dictionary, the notable resting place of similarly-fêted terms such as “dome”, “star wars” and “delia”.

Unlike making a phone call, using Wap has minimal appeal. Your mother, like mine, may have a mobile phone just for emergencies at the allotment. People buy this kind of idea and marketers have realised just how pliable a word like “emergency” can be. Wap, though does not benefit from such marketability and until it is improved, repackaged and given away for free, it never will be.

It really saddens me to say all this, but just about every “early adopter” I have met with a Wap phone, be he (always he) techie, flash designer or business suit, hardly ever uses the Wap services he carries around. They don’t even deny it. In the future, there will certainly be some kicking wireless Internet products offering usability and services, but this one seems to have already been de-selected for survival. “Wapped-up” people in my experience always fall back to one thing, their Nokia 7110, its auto flip cover and its starring role in The Matrix (it acted better than Keanu Reeves). But this is just a phase.

Aside from the über-marketing hype, which the modest service could never have lived up to, there are some fundamental flaws to the Wap concept, too. The first seems to be its premise: “Let’s design a service for the devices in everybody’s pockets”. In practice, this means users are incredibly limited – selecting from scroll-through lists of words due to keyboard limitations, the odd pixelated “graphic” and a minuscule screen. Of course this will change.

Wap sites are listed as lines of tiny text. Content – what you look for – is largely textual information too. Sites such as Breathe, BT’s Genie, or snow report service Pistoff (full name: Pistoff.com/wap.wml), give access to other content providers familiar from the Web such as Excite, BBC, Lastminute.com or The Guardian. By selecting a brand you will be offered new lists of content by subject. Click again and you narrow your selection until eventually you will be served up an infinity of weather, TV lists, movie news, traffic reports and failed connections.

Problems abound. Wap is dull to use and requires concentration, thumb dexterity and copious squinting. Forget trying to buy anything – I really mean it – you can’t. It might just save you time over other reference systems though. I heard of two guys racing to get a telephone number from directory enquiries, one through BT and one via a Wap service. The guy with the Wap phone won by a whisker, but his competitor was free to scratch, smoke, drink his pint and laugh at him.

Wap services at the moment are very, very basic. Although in theory users receive localised information (dependant on the whereabouts of their phone signal), this has not yet been picked up by promotional retailers as we were promised. Odeon cinemas don’t offer you three tickets for the price of two if you drop in straight away, nor does McDonalds promise you a free happy meal if you Wap on over. The only sensible idea is the German taxi service: http://webcab.de, but it is a long way away.

Integration with other technologies is another problem. It should be easy to send and receive e-mail to friends or from your PC, but it is not. Wap sites should be self-sufficient or synonymous with websites, but many just compromise their functionality. Don’t believe the hype. Wap services do not facilitate, they extenuate, complicate and start to grate, as Michael Hutchence would probably say.

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.