Bob's Byte: Heroes & Villains
By Bob Emmerson, Wed Sep 06 00:00:00 GMT 2000

Hype it up. Raise expectation to unrealistic heights. Then trash it down when those heights are not attained. Right now wireless technology is on a media merry-go-round, fuelled by a heady mix of ignorance, optimism and hidden agendas.

The heroes-and-villains syndrome seems to be part of the new economy. It took Microsoft about eight years to get from Windows 1.0 to 3.1, with early releases dubbed "shelfware," since that's where the software ended up. Although "rubbishware" would have been more appropriate, Mr. Gates persevered and the rest, as they say, is history.

WAP hit the headlines in October '99, but a mere eight months later, what do we find? A whole slew of "WAP is Trash" articles and the somewhat vulgar, and by now infamous, "WAP is Crap" opus. Most of this ill-informed coverage comes from North American PC publications. Their view is Web-centric because the American perception takes the concept of the wireless Internet literally, when it is really just a marketing term. The Internet has not gone wireless -- what's happened is neatly summed up by an IBC conference theme: "Reinvent the Mobile and Redefine the Internet."

However, the GSM industry has shot itself in the foot on this one. Slogans like "The Net in Your Pocket" were everywhere at the GSM Congress in Cannes, so maybe the lion's share of the blame lies on this side of the Atlantic.

WAP and smart phones are not designed for mobile surfing. That should be obvious -- just look at the size of the screen. Moreover, most of the HTML content is of little to no value when you're out and about. Totally different information is required: weather, traffic, maps, restaurants, sports results, news headlines, share prices, parking places, and so on. This content has to be created or generated from source data; vendors who promote the concept of converting HTML for display on thin-client devices are starting in the wrong place.

By the time next-generation WAP (version 2.0) comes around, things will have settled down. Wireless information services will either be a big winner or a massive loser. If the former, the media will become born-again WAP heads. If the latter, they'll gloat. Java (a technology) could be giving WAP (a standard) a run for its money. The WML-versus-stripped-down-HTML issue will probably have been resolved in favor of XML. 2G packet-switched services will no longer be a novelty and 3G will be on the horizon.

When all these technology issues are resolved -- and we should really be looking 12 to 18 months down the road -- the hype and confusion will be over and subscribers will take the new services and applications for granted. By then the revolution that reinvented the mobile and redefined the Internet will be over. There will be winners and losers, as in any revolution, and probably a whole slew of innovative stuff that nobody has foreseen. Think back, if you're not too young, to the early days of GSM. The first phones were huge, heavy and very expensive. The transceiver part lived in the boot of executive limos and macro cells provided coverage on inter-city highways. That was the market the industry set out to serve.

Pocket-sized devices and near-ubiquitous coverage were not on the GSM drawing board. That was part of a future concept called UMTS and the idea was to have a basic, speech-only terminal costing around $30 in the year 2000. And if such a service became available, the experts told us that 50% or more of all telephony traffic might be to or from mobile terminals.

GSM therefore ushered in a mobile communications revolution, though not along those early lines. The industry can take credit for delivering the products and global roaming, but that only came in response to the enthusiasm with which the market greeted this development. There was no big GSM 'vision thing' and it took several years to get the phone out of the car and into the pocket.

The PC media should therefore stop all this simplistic, black-and-white, heroes-and-villains coverage. The issues are complex, and come in many shades of gray and will take time to resolve. There is nothing to be gained by this type of coverage. It may sell a few more issues, but the end result is massive confusion, and a confused market doesn't buy, it waits.

Give WAP the time it needs to develop, and let the market tell the industry what it wants. It worked rather well for GSM, and 20:20 hindsight is always a wonderful thing.

Bob's Byte is a regular column on TheFeature. Bob Emmerson observes and writes on the wireless industry from his home in The Netherlands.