An Ocean Apart
By Carlo Longino, Fri Oct 27 00:00:00 GMT 2000

When it comes to the mobile Internet, many Americans seem more focused on what WAP and i-mode can't do than what they can, ignoring the immediate commercial benefits the non-HTML standards offer.

NEW YORK -- It's no secret that American wireless development lags behind that of Europe and Asia by at least a year. But that gap isn't closing nearly as fast as one might think, due not only to cultural and economic differences, but also to a gross misunderstanding of the realities (and capabilities) of today's mobile Internet.

Americans -- consumers, service providers and application developers alike -- are still feeling out this whole idea of the Internet on the go, while Europeans and Asians are quickly developing and adopting new services. Not a week goes by without an announcement by a major European or Asian business that they have mobilized at least some aspect of their business, be it through SMS, WAP, or i-mode. But Americans are more apt to spend time crying about what the mobile Internet can't do rather than what it can.

At last week's Wireless World 2000 conference in New York City, the president of one American wireless company spent some time bashing WAP in a seminar billed as "The Great WAP Debate." Fresh off a trip to Europe where he spent time talking to big players in the region's wireless industry (and also picking up the ubiquitous "WAP is crap" line), YadaYada president Raj Gupta slammed the standard and mobile devices as a way of accessing the Internet.

Gupta concedes that the wireless Internet is fundamentally different than its wireline brother, but doesn't seem to fully understand the logic there, as all his company does is sell modems and Internet services for certain Palm OS devices, promising users access to 90% of existing Web sites. YadaYada's big selling point is that their browser reads HTML, not WAP, and Gupta argues that people (meaning Americans) won't be willing to give up the functionality and display of their home or office net connections for the limited services available through WAP.

But this attitude, typical of many Americans and American businesses, ignores the reality presented by WAP and its cousin i-mode, which also doesn't use full-fledged HTML. The two standards are capable of delivering valuable services right now, to both businesses and consumers. Neither claims to deliver the media-rich content available to a PC user who has a big monitor, stereo speakers and a T1 line. But to ignore them because of this is to foolishly put aside a chance to move forward in the development of wireless services. Most Web sites were never intended to be viewed on mobile devices, and any comparison by a user of a site on a Palm and the same site on a PC will be as predictable as the Pepsi Challenge.

Take, for example, i-mode. Its enormous popularity in Japan isn't because it offers users a rich multimedia experience, but rather because of its functionality. DoCoMo's promotional videos for the service don't show users taking advantage of streaming video or some other mythical feature, they show consumers using its entertainment features and business users checking their e-mail and schedules. i-mode subscribers don't shell out for what might be possible in the future, but for what they can do with the system now. I don't have a WAP phone because I think it might be useful in a few years, but because I can use it now to read the news and check sports scores or do my banking.

Gupta also says that using WAP forces content providers to consider the technical aspects of content delivery, taking time away from their core competency - developing content. But certainly a key for any content provider, be it a newspaper, TV station, or Web site, is to master their medium and realize its limitations and capabilities. Viewing HTML on a mobile device isn't pretty, especially with today's graphic-intensive sites. And even if YadaYada's service and browser can handle images, it must be pretty painful at only 19.2kbps.

I'm not trying to say that WAP is the be-all and end-all for mobile content delivery. Its limitations are severe, and it will certainly be replaced by something more user- and developer-friendly. But simply trying to squeeze full HTML pages into a Palm or web phone isn't the way to go. As Gupta's foe in the WAP debate, David Hayden, CEO of mobileID, which uses WAP to deliver content, put it, "WAP sucks less." But he points out several key factors to consider about the standard -- the support of nearly every carrier and handset manufacturer, its immediate availability, and of course, the fact that it is optimized for wireless devices.

Hayden also points out that many problems people have with WAP aren't a result of any issue with the standard itself, but with the applications developed for it. Again, in Europe, third parties like Iobox and Riot-E are developing clever and useful WAP-based applications, and major players like Ericsson and Nokia are teaming up with business giants like Visa, SAP, Deutsche Bank and Microsoft to quickly roll out services -- designed and optimized for WAP -- to eager European customers. The companies have realized that capitalizing on current technologies offer them the opportunity to not only add new revenue streams, but also to introduce customers to the idea of mobile commerce, planting the seeds for mass-market acceptance when newer, faster and better technologies emerge.

So while Americans are whining that mobile browsing can't support Flash animations or frames or whatever, Europeans and Asians are gladly adopting mobile Internet functionality, be it through WAP, i-mode, or even SMS. Perhaps they've got a point, so I'll put it in terms my fellow countrymen can understand -- who wants to trade in their 52-inch projection TV for the 13-inch black and white model? But what they fail to realize in the instant-gratification/MTV/super-size value meal haze is that having that scaled-down model is better than nothing at all.

Carlo Longino is TheFeature's resident business guru and over-opinionated American. His previous experience includes work for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires and Hoover's Online.