The Mobile Web: What to do with WAP in 2010

When I was given this assignment it was posited as a question: Should a CIO consider implementing WAP? My immediate response was absolutely not.

My experience with WAP was roughly eight years ago. Back then, it was a light-weight protocol for displaying modified versions of webpages on a small text only screen. To “WAP-ify” a site required recoding and making changes to your infrastructure technology by adding a WAP gateway to translate Web content into WAP and manage communications with mobile devices. It worked, but implementation was onerous enough that I told customers, “Unless you absolutely need access to your website through a text-based browser on a tiny mobile phone screen, don’t waste your time.”

To add insult to injury, mobile providers occasionally limited access to various WAP sites, meaning that you could build it and no one would come. This was part of some bizarre plans to build “walled gardens” and monetize content. Then along came smartphones with built in Web browsers and faster data networks. I felt this was the death knell for WAP: Who would want to use a little tiny text based browser instead of a big beautiful iPhone or Blackberry?

Today’s WAP

However, while smartphones are the class of mobile device of choice in the US, the rest of the world isn’t so keen on them. Well, it’s not so much about whether they like them or not as it is about 95% of the world’s population not being able to shell out $300 for a smartphone and then an extra $25/mo on a data plan. It’s estimated that less than 20% of mobile phones sold outside the US are smartphones. Although that percentage is growing, this still indicates that outside the US, roughly 80% of mobile phone users are still using WAP to browse the web.

While the percentage of smartphone users in the developing world is growing, it’s going to be three to five years before they are adopted by the majority of users. Plus, as I learned on a recent trip to the Philippines, just because someone in a developing country has a smartphone doesn’t mean that they are also paying for a data plan.

WAP vs. App?

The inevitable question that comes up is whether or not every company on the planet needs to develop an iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Windows Mobile, or Symbian app. I have mixed feelings about this as I believe the right thing to do is to develop a website that is well-designed and flexible enough to be displayed on any browser. After all, isn’t the point of HTML/CSS that you can develop a platform independent solution?

However, my philosophical commitment to standards-based computing has taken a severe blow over the past year or so. There are now about 150,000 iPhone apps that are starting to prove me wrong. It turns out that users don’t really care about efficient Web browsing. I am not capable of understanding why a user would choose to run a proprietary app instead of a Web browser, but they seem to be doing it. I honestly feel that a lot of this has to do with the difficulties of typing a URL on a smartphone. All we need is a way to place a bookmark on the home screen directly instead of in the browser and half the proprietary apps out there will simply disappear.

The IT philosopher in me makes me write that HTML/CSS is the best strategy. Why develop five proprietary apps, one for each platform, when you could develop one well designed HTML/CSS site? I hesitate to say this, but the massive and rapid uptake in apps makes me think that building an app may be a good tactic.

To fly in the face of my beliefs, there are plenty of case studies about companies switching from WAP to a proprietary application successfully. For example, after maintaining a WAP site for years, Pizza Hut launched an iPhone app and increased sales by $300,000 a month (philosophy tends to take a back seat to increased revenue).

What to do with WAP

While WAP is not as dead as I previously thought, it still does have one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel. If you are building a site for US mobile users, then ignore WAP. Instead, add multiple layers of HTML and CSS to your existing website so that the same content users see in a PC browser can be streamlined and reformatted for a smartphone browser. Also, consider stripping down and resizing graphics, or simply removing them.

If you already have a WAP site, then don’t throw it away, unless maintaining it is an arduous task. It’s still a lightning fast (albeit ugly) way of browsing the Web. It should go without saying that as CIO you should set standards for business units regarding Web and mobile technologies. Business units should not be running their own WAP gateways.

Here’s where it get’s interesting: If you are building a mobile site for international use, then you must consider WAP while understanding that in five years (a veritable IT lifetime) you will have to rip it out. However, you are beginning a project planning for obsolescence so try to control costs and engineer the system to eventually be converted to the multi-layered HTML/CSS.

Matt Sarrel is executive director of Sarrel Group, a technology product test lab, editorial services and consulting practice specializing in gathering and leveraging competitive intelligence. He has over 20 years of experience in IT and focuses on high-speed, large scale networking, information security, and enterprise storage. E-mail: [email protected], Twitter: @msarrel.