Wireless Application Protocol

by : Sandra Prior

You can't go far, even in the mainstream media, without coming across someone speculating about the future of the Internet. Among all the excessive predictions there's one claim that never really gets much attention. Many more devices that we use will be connected to the Internet. And that's a shame, because this is an important development, and it's happening now, with the aid of Wireless Application Protocol (WAP).

What is WAP for?

There's a lot of information and resources available on the Internet, and as companies take the Web more seriously, so we can do more every day. But if the only access is via your PC, then that's hardly convenient. Dynamic information like news, sports, weather, and so on, could be of interest no matter where you are. And other sites are most useful when you're out of the house; if you're out shopping wouldn't it be convenient to be able to access the Internet to quickly compare prices?

As so many people now carry some sort of wireless based device anyway, this is clearly a possibility, but there's a problem. The devices have different capabilities, and run on lots of different wireless networks, so finding a standard way of connecting them to the Internet isn't easy.

The solution that ties everything together is the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). It's designed to work on all kinds of digital wireless devices, on just about every wireless network there is. It defines both the method of communications, and the environment in which applications run, so it can be built on any operating system (PalmOS, Windows CE, EPOC, JavaOS, and so on).

Not yet impressed? It's been estimated that more than 100 million WAP-compatible devices will have been shipped worldwide by the end of this year. The possibilities of tapping this new market are already attracting plenty of attention. Microsoft and Ericcson have formed a new company to market and deliver mobile WAP-based email solutions.

What is WAP Like?

There are many difficulties with having Net access on a mobile phone; in particular, the display size is much less than a PC, and the processor powering the device won't even be close to Pentium power. As a result, the WAP world has replacements for all the Net technologies and protocols we know and love. For example, pages are written in WML (Wireless Markup Language) rather than HTML, scripting is done in WMLScript as opposed to Javascript, and the pages get to your device courtesy of WTP (Wireless Transaction Protocol) instead of HTTP.

If the prospect of learning a whole new way of working seems depressing, don't worry, it's not as bad as it seems. While there are many new concepts - in the Wireless Markup Language, you don't really create pages, just more 'decks' consisting of one or more cards - when you look more closely, it seems the WAP technologies aren't so very new at all. WMLScript doesn't look that dissimilar to current coding languages.

What Next?

Already we're beginning to see some of the same issues that annoy people in the regular Internet world appear with WAP - standards compliance, for one. While the main WAP specification approaches 1.2, support among the various phone companies varies; the siemens C25 supports WAP 1.0, while the Nokia 7110 and most Ericsson products handle WAP 1.1.

If you'd like to get involved yourself, or find out more there are many ways to get started. Guidance on building sites in WML and WMLScript can be found in developers' kits or on the Internet. What you shouldn't do is ignore it, because WAP is soon becoming more popular than your PC.