An open letter to Jakob Nielsen.

Hi Jakob!

While channel surfing aimlessly last night, I flicked onto Sweden's TV8 Finans Nytt (Finance Night) where someone was sounding off about WAP in no uncertain terms. Having never seen a picture of you before, I still knew before the caption confirmed it, that this was Jakob Nielsen. The level of invective levelled against WAP was unmistakeable - as was the style of your protest, which seemed to be along the lines of: Don't use WAP. WAP is useless. Wait for a better technology. I found myself wondering what this mysterious "better technology" might be and whether your Alertboxes might hold any information about that and why you feel WAP is so bad.

I should probably begin my briefly outlining who I am and why I am so concerned about the picture painted of WAP. I am Steve Cook, an Englishman living in Sweden. I have been a professional web developer for 6 years and currently work for a "B2B" company that has nothing to do with WAP! In my free time I run a WAP/HTML search engine and a discussion list for WAP developers where I will also be sending a copy of this mail. I occasionally write articles for evolt.org and other web based publications. Beyond the fact that I personally feel that WAP is a technology on the right track, which can bring us some excellent services, I have no particular axe to grind. Especially not a commercial axe, as I have never earnt a penny from anything to do with WAP development!

Beginning with your latest WAP article - the "WAP Backlash" Alertbox, I was disappointed to find that your arguments against WAP appear to be built on a faulty understanding of what WAP is. Your focus is on the current WAP interface - which can be seen as a very early version of the technology. It's like dooming the web in 1994 for poor image support!

The section entitled 'Developing for WAP: End of "Design Once, Display Anywhere"' contains a summary of your reasons for why WAP has low usability. In the first paragraph, every single reason you give concerns the current state of the art and has nothing to do with WAP as a specification. Small screen size? Current mobile phone technology! Slow bandwidth? GSM limitations! New call for every connection? GSM limitations again! Digits-only keypad! Current mobile phone technology! Not one of these points has anything to do with the WAP specifications. You see WAP is designed to work flexibly across a range of different carriers (SMS, GSM, GPRS etc) and on a range of different handsets. It is in fact admirably suited to the task at hand.

Further on in this section, you talk about the need to design for the limitations of different handsets. You are right that this is an unacceptable situation and creates extra work for companies looking to provide a WAP service. I can assure you that WAP developers are equally up in arms about it. But show me where the WAP specifications say that different handsets will support different features. This has to do with manufacturers of microbrowsers playing games with each other in a bid to be competitive. They saw how effective "the browser wars" were for Microsoft VS Netscape and have decided to try and play the same game with the WAP specification. However I think you'll find that this will happen with every new markup technology from here on in. Tell us how the mysterious "better technology" that will replace WAP is going to avoid this particular market pressure.

Your argument concerning "Closed Services" is not much better. Again you are talking about an implementation of WAP rather than a feature of the WAP specifications. Remember "The Microsoft Network"? Remember Compuserve? Exactly the same "Walled Garden" battle took place at the birth of the web and what happened? Market forces prevailed. Eventually customers showed they were not interested in a service that didn't include Internet access, took their business elsewhere and closed down the "Closed Services". The same WILL happen for WAP - it's teething problems, not a problem with WAP.

Finally you come to a "Mobile Internet Strategy". Here I find myself agreeing with almost everything you say in point 2. Personally I don't see any reason not to roll out services now, but only if they are well thought through and utilise the strengths of WAP that are there.

I'm going to stop my response to your points here, for a moment as I would like to explain why I think it is so dangerous to spread the message you are spreading and why I am sending this mail. To begin with, I agree with many of your points - when applied to the current state of the art implementation of WAP. However I absolutely do NOT think this is a reason to drop WAP as a technology. Yes WAP has been over-hyped, but this in turn is leading to huge amounts of development of the underlying technology. Earlier attempts to create a standard for mobile Internet have died horrible deaths due to lack of interest and lack of technology. Now we are finally making headway in one of the most exciting developments the Internet has seen. This development will only continue if people and companies get involved and make it happen. There is also a chicken and egg effect in that handsets must exist before people develop services and services must exist before companies develop handsets! Of course WAP is off to a shaky start - but the WAP specifications include lots of room for growth. There is nothing in the specs that precludes the use of larger screens, with faster download times and an improved user interface thanks to the use of colour and graphics. It's going to take time, but it's going to happen, just as it happened for the Web.

That's why I think that your advice in point 1 is dangerous. If everyone stays away, mobile services won't happen - it's that simple!

Finally, I wanted to examine your suggestion on TV this evening that some mysterious "better technology" will come along and replace WAP. You point out that I-mode is superior to WAP as a current generation service - I don't agree! I-mode is a closed specification, owned by one company (docomo), which has succeeded thanks to the right sorts of services being produced for a VERY different cultural market to the one WAP serves. Various alternatives to WAP have been suggested, but none of them have captured public imagination, or the attention of phone manufacturers.

So this is where I ask you to "Put up, or shut up!". Rather than dooming WAP to an ignominious death, help us make the technology better. I am prepared to support a better alternative to WAP, though I personally believe that the best alternative is continued development of the WAP specifications. Tell us what YOU think this "better technology" should deliver. Give us some idea of what the future might be a future that can be realised by the end of 2001 to fit with your predictions - and help contribute to the construction of the world's future mobile internet services, rather than tying to tear down the work that's already been done. If you can do that, I will be more than willing to help try and spread the message to the standards makers, the mobile phone companies and the handset manufacturers.

The alternative is to shut up! Your criticisms are not constructive and are levelled against the wrong target. Take some time to see what the WAP standards actually say. Realise that you are criticising an early implementation of a promising technology. Here's a good starting point for your research.

So what do you say Jakob?

.steve