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WAP: Now And Into The Future!

by Christoffer Andersson
February 14 2001

As WAP services are launched in countries all over the world, some people are getting their first experiences of Mobile Internet. There is an incredible activity among WML developers today, and everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. Still one can hear some HTML-developers being grumpy about abandoning their favorite markup language, and learning a new one that is extremely unforgiving to syntax errors. Others say that higher bitrate technologies, like GPRS and 3G will take away the need for WAP in the future. I just wanted to go through a couple of reasons why I think that WAP is here to stay and how it is likely to evolve in the future. There are after all many other things to WAP than the markup language.

What's New In WAP 1.2.1

Today most of the WAP content is written for WAP 1.1 compliant phones, and we are seeing WAP 1.2.1 finalized in standardization. Content for the new standard is currently being developed and developers are just waiting for the phones. Examples of a 1.2.1 compliant phone is the R520 from Ericsson. The main features that will be introduced in 1.2.1 are:

Push - This enables trusted applications servers to initiate transmission of information to WAP devices. An example could be getting weather updates to let users know that a storm is approaching. This is especially useful for packet networks like GPRS, where users are always online.

Wireless Identity Module (WIM) - Can be used to store user specific parameters. For GSM/GPRS/WCDMA phones the SIM card can be used as WIM module and make it easier to implement security solutions.

UAProf - Introduces User Agent Profiles that can be used to advertise handset capabilities to applications servers and other entities. This means that content can be better adapted for different types of devices.

For a comprehensive discussion on these updates and others, check out the WapForum website. WAP 1.2.1 also includes a number of smaller adjustments which takes away ambiguities.

WAP, Next Generation (NG)

WAP's next step has the working title WAP-NG (sometimes called WAP 2.0 and targeted to be finalized by mid-2001), and will be a larger step. This is viewed to be the standard that initial 3G handsets will use, and lots of work is put into it already. NTT DoCoMo is heavily involved in this in order to find a solution that can be used in their iMode service as well. Today the massively popular Japanese service uses a proprietary HTML-derivative, called c-HTML, which has caused some worries, among WAP (WML) developers.

iMode has experienced a tremendous growth (around 20 Million users in less than two years) and one reason is that c-HTML is very easy to get started with. WML, on the other hand, has been seen as bulky and cumbersome by some developers. The issue with HTML and HTML-derivatives has so far been the lack of strict rules for content description. When designing for small devices, that all have different form factors and screen sizes, it is important to be able to control the way content is presented in a more detailed way. WML is derived from the rules of XML, a generic content description framework. Now the WWW Consortium, W3C, is working on ways to apply XML rules into a revised HTML standard, XHTML. The WAP forum is working closely with W3C in this effort, and it is foreseen that WAP 2.0 will support both WML and XHTML. This ensures that content developed today will also be viewable on future devices. The following picture shows the evolution of the markup languages.

The issue is a bit complicated and this picture is of course not perfect. XML is really a framework and set of rules, from which WML and XHTML are derived. As this version of the WAP standard is NOT yet finalized, these things are still not carved in stone. The WAP Forum aims to finalize the standardization work by mid-2001 and history has shown that handsets then should start to appear 6-12 months later.

Beyond Markup Languages

The discussion above is very typical for WAP today, where everything circulates around the markup language and what we can see. In order to elaborate on why WAP will be a major force even as bitrates get higher and screens get bigger, we will now look into WAP under the hood.

One heavy reason to WAP's continued presence as a mass market access, is that all major phone manufacturers have committed to put WAP into all upcoming phones. Apart from that I'd like to give four main aspects of WAP who are important, now and in the future:

Content adaptation - Bringing content down to small devices is going to be a key issue going forward. Not only is there a need to get the content down to small devices, but there will also be a need to make it fit many different form factors. The further we get into 3G the bigger that variety of devices available will be. An application should be viewable on a Palm PDA as well as a phone with 5 rows, which is a major challenge. An important part of this is to have content and presentation clearly separated, a feature which the relation XML adds. WAP was built from scratch to define ways to get content formatted for small devices with a number of different form factors.

Efficiency - As packet data becomes the preferred way of using many Mobile Internet information sites, users are likely to pay more corresponding to the amount of data they are transferring than the time connected. This means that everyone is keen on having as little protocol data sent for each bit of information. The binary coding of Wireless Session Protocol (WSP) that WAP increases the efficiency a lot. It enables the gateway to take the well-known WSP headers and assign them the code that both the client and the gateway knows of. This means that the header overhead is drastically lowered.

Robustness - Wireless connections are likely to sometimes be disrupted by lack of coverage or radio shadowing objects (like elevators). With the advent of GPRS we will also see packet data sessions (like WAP) being interrupted by incoming phonecalls. This is due to the use of only one transceiver in most handsets (class B). Applications need to be robust and rebound after interruptions and going in and out of coverage, a feature that WAP adds by letting sessions be suspended and then later resumed.

Telephony Integration - In order to really leverage the features that makes the Mobile Internet a very compelling market, one has to see the potential synergies between the data part of the handset and the phone part. If I search for a hotel and get three names, I might want to choose one of them which to book. It would be much easier then to just select one of them on my phone's display rather than writing down the number and dialing i. The Wireless Telephone Application (WTA) framework adds this feature to WAP.

Finally, it is clear that WAP is not perfect, and there will always be room for improvement. This is however natural when a standard is developed by lots of companies over just a few years. The advantage of this slow migration into a good applications environment is that content for a great diversity of devices can be specified in a unified, optimized way.

Don’t hesitate to drop me a line with suggestions and comments. If you are in the process of developing wireless applications, make sure to sign up as a member at the Mobile Applications Initiative. (Membership is free and open to anyone, not just the ones currently developing wireless applications). You can also drop in at one of the Ericsson MAI test labs for tests in a wireless environment and feedback on how to optimize for wireless.


About The Author: Christoffer Andersson is Senior Specialist and Manager of Special Projects for the Ericsson. In this position he works with stratetic issues and projects in the area of Terminals and Applications 2G/3G. Christoffer is also author of the upcoming book ‘GPRS and 3G Wireless Applications – The Professional Developer’s Guide’, published in May 2001 by John Wiley and Sons. Christoffer can be reached at christoffer@wirelessdevnet.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily Ericsson.

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