Analysis: Where's WAP?

Over the years, I've seen plenty of hyped-up technologies come and go in Internet time. Remember the stillborn NetPC? Or for that matter, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's NC? If you can't remember these things, it's not your fault. It is because they hardly register a blip on the fickle tech landscape of the past few decades. They came, they saw, they meekly retreated into technology purgatory.

But I have never seen anything quite like what happened to WAP, the wireless applications protocol. WAP really burst on the scene less than a year ago, promising to free Web sites of costly redesigns for every manner of wireless device.

WAP was a protocol to which all sites could be written, and the information could then be delivered to any conceivable wireless device an enduser might be using. Sounds great, right?

Well that's what everyone else thought too. Companies of every ilk began to throw their support behind the fledgling protocol. The WAP Forum, an open standards group in charge of managing the protocol, was signing up the biggest names in all of wireless computing.

The vendors were there, the market was ripe, and I was sure we had ourselves an actual standard (can you imagine that?).

But something happened, and I wish I could say what it was. At the very peak of its popularity, when it seemed no one could stop its momentum, when every wireless vendor would blithely drop the simple words, "we're a member of the WAP Forum," in conversation to gain instant credibility, it all went south. Vendors started to turn on WAP like rabid dogs.

It was subtle at first: a few doubts over robustness, questions about the ease of implementation. But then the landslide hit, and I don't think the WAP Forum ever saw it coming.

In the span of about one month (no exaggeration), public opinion of WAP went from sky-high to in the gutter. I started hearing quotes such as, "It's just not enough", all the way to, "It stinks". Vendors would criticise its origins, saying that Phone.com had too much to gain in WAP's success. It got ugly. Very ugly.

So what possibly could have happened to make so many WAP faithful turn against the once unstoppable protocol? I think it is a combination of the things mentioned above, along with competitive concerns and a genuine desire in the US market to avoid all things standardised.

But I think it also has to do with a mob mentality that takes hold in fast-growing markets such as wireless.

The community is only so large, and word spreads quickly. It only takes one key player to head in another direction to make a proposed standard such as WAP fall to pieces. I don't know who the insurgents were, but they were certainly well-connected.

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