Readers' Comments on WAP Backlash

by Jakob Nielsen on July 9, 2000

Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen 's column on WAP Backlash .

Why is SMS Popular?

Andrew Herron, CEO of writes:

Just a few comments re your July 2000 alertbox piece from someone at 'the coal face' of the mobile Internet over here in Europe;

Mobile Internet is a descriptive term I first heard used in a Nokia presentation in mid 1997...and it has been used very frequently by many European companies in and around mobile services sector since then - my company has used it as a catchall term for this space since that time for example.

While I certainly agree that WAP has been grossly over hyped by the mobile network operators, various 'expert' analysts and some VAS developers here in Europe it is not failing excite users necessarily for the reasons you describe. Yes the mobile phones themselves do have small screens and do not have full QWERTY keyboards and yes they do have idiosyncratic MMI's - but those limitations (and they are real ones I agree) are not in my opinion the problem. If they were then the explosive growth in SMS here in Europe (800 million messages sent in the UK last month...close to 8 billion sent in Europe as a whole) and in the Far East would never have happened - SMS confronts the user with all these limitations in a very direct way but usage just keeps climbing at an unbelievable rate. SMS in fact is turning out to be a 'killer' app all across Europe and the Far East - here in the UK for example in the now dominant pre-pay market it has already over taken voice calls as the dominant application.

Therefore if it is the MMI of the mobile phone that is holding back WAP then it should have had the same effect on SMS. It has not.

Another interesting point you raise is the immense success of i-Mode in Japan. This success has been achieved will all the same MMI and physical size limitations that afflict the European WAP mobile phone market. In fact in many ways they MMI on i-Mode mobile phones is even worse than WAP phones in Europe as they also have to deal with an immensely more complex language etc.

I think it is generally accepted in Europe that the limited success of WAP to date stems from a number of areas;

  • The quality and value of the services so far has been less that great. News, weather, share prices etc etc are not really what the consumer market is looking for on their mobile. The big growth market is pre-pay mobile phones and they are for the most part being purchased by the 13-26 year olds - they are not being offered services that meet their requirements. Most WAP services to date have been broadly based around Web based content models and have been hampered by a belief that people will want to browse - they don't. They want to be entertained and they want to access specific information that is useful where they happen to be at that moment. The usage patterns are fundamentally different to the way that people use PC's.
  • Dial up switched connections. The problem with these is that they are charged by the second and people are sensitive to the potential costs involved in accessing WAP services. Speed it turns out is not a big problem - even 9.6 K is quite snappy when your loading WAP decks that are only 1.4-3k in size (even i-Mode only currently supports 9.6 K ...however it is a packet based service...see below).
  • The WAP mobile phones available up until recently have not been very appealing to the mass pre-pay market. The WAP developers favorite mobile the Nokia 7110 is not available on pre-pay - what is on offer is the rather un-cool, big and ugly Trium Geo (Mitsubishi) and two Motorola Timeports that are really 'business' phones. This is about to change.
All mobile phone manufacturers have announced their product roll-outs for the Christmas 2000 buying season. Essentially all new GSM mobile phones from now forwards will have WAP included as standard - it will just be in the box as SMS is already today. Secondly all mobile manufacturers targeting the European GSM market have shifted their product focus to address the dominant youth pre-pay market. This means mobiles that are very tiny, have removable facias, predictive text input, downloadable ringtones, are very customisable etc etc.

Most mobile networks here in Europe are now starting to roll out GPRS which is a new packet based enhancement to the existing GSM network infrastructure. The first GPRS WAP mobile phones will appear in the buildup to Christmas 2000 and will provide and 'always on' packet based connection that will be either flat rate charged on an unmetered basis or will be charged on a per packet basis. This will fundamentally change how people use and perceive services as there will be no dial-up delay or time based charging.

One last point - it is often the WAP gateway that the mobile user accesses that causes many of the challenges when design and testing a service. Many Web design firms have been caught out by this one issue alone - because WAP is an XML based technology the WAP gateways are completely unforgiving of any markup errors. You just cannot get away with the sloppy markup that most Web pages contain. Possibly in excess of 60-70% of the service development and testing effort in many Web design firms that have tried their hand at WAP development is expended in learning this fact!

Jakob's reply: SMS is the ability to send a short text message from one mobile telephone to another. It is a huge hit among young Scandinavians and also used quite heavily among adult users and in the rest of Europe. Why?

SMS is more successful than WAP because it has higher utility even though it has almost as low usability.

I usually promote usability, but truth be told, a better model is to analyze the usefulness of a service which is a combination of two parameters:

  1. Utility : what does the service do; how closely does it match users' needs
  2. Usability : how easy, efficient, and pleasant is it to use the service

Both are necessary: If a system has no utility, it doesn't matter how easy it is to learn or how efficient it is to use (50 irrelevant transactions per hour remains a useless exercise). But even the highest utility is for naught if users cannot figure out how to use it.

SMS has very high utility:

  • All content is fully personalized and targeted because it is a message that one of your friends decided to send to you . This is the way email used to be before spam and mailing lists (of course, there are evil forces at work to send advertising by SMS and if people start getting sufficiently many irrelevant SMS messages, they will start to tune out the service).
  • The messages are usually context-dependent in both time and space (a typical message is "I will be too late to meet you at the restaurant, so can we meet at the movie theater instead?").
  • The messages are short and fast to read because they have to be composed on a lousy telephone keypad.

SMS also has slightly higher usability than WAP: because the messages have to be so short, they will download fast despite the limited bandwidth. And the writer of a message can rely on human intelligence and shared context to compose a better short text than any computer can do.

War Story

A designer from an e-commerce site writes:

I agree with your comments on WAP in your most recent Alertbox. I recently implemented the WAP site for a B2C ecommerce company. I have to agree that the limitations of the platform make it a tedious experience for the user and a serious challenge for the designer. Our site is one of the "bundled" shopping sites for AT&T's PocketNet service. In some ways, the worst part is the slow network, coupled with slow servers at some sites. Waiting for each "card" is a tedious experience, especially for badly-designed sites with deeply-nested cards. As an experiment, I once spent about 15 minutes searching for movie times (I think was the provider), most of it waiting for their slow servers to generate one card at a time.

Here are some of the usability flaws I have seen in other WAP sites (I'm blind to the flaws in my site, except perhaps for the biggest issue - will anyone want to browse an ecommerce site with a phone??):

  • Making the user log in for every new session. Excite's mobile site requires this, which is stupid since you can identify the phone through packet header fields (For our site, you "register" your phone - or Palm device - once and from then on we know who you are....). I like some of the features Excite offers, but am I going to log in every time? NOOO! (I tried picking a keypad-friendly name and password, but gave up when I found that all the "good" ones were taken.)
  • Confusing navigation. As you are probably aware, navigation in WAP applications gets confusing fast; it's very much like negotiating a labyrinth. Designers don't pay enough attention to this problem.
  • Verbose "cards". Here's a place where my site sometimes fails, in part because I have little control over some of the content, like product details (which are written by other people and are oriented towards "regular" browsers) and in part because our legal department insisted on certain verbage, etc.
Clean, concise text is essential. The Weather Channel's site does this well. (It's a good "killer app." for WAP, as much as any app. can be ;^)

One criticism you make about WAP is the fact that it uses a different markup language, etc. This is a pain for the reasons described, but I also feel that the current devices are so limited that a special-purpose language is necessary to create "optimal" applications. Furthermore, there is no way that a "normal" web design will work on these phones, so a unique design is needed, anyway. Granted, the devices are too primitive to be user friendly and designers don't want to create duplicate designs, but given the constraints, I found that using the special markup language is appropriate.

France, Germany, and South Africa

Just to emphasize that the issues are not restricted to the U.K., here are a few comments from other countries.

Olivier Mevel from France writes:

I was among the first to suffer a Wap experience with the 7110 Nokia phone and couldn't believe this technology will ever succeed (as you mention it is ridiculous to try to key works with a numeric keypad !!!).

Worse than that Telecom companies tried to bundle and lock the phone with their own Wap services (this has been ruled out by a court that basically said that prevent France Telecom to lock the customer ... problem is that it is SO DIFFICULT to configure a Wap telephone that I doubt that people will ever change "ISP").

And worse than worse some companies are now charging per the minute some Wap services (OK you could say that here in France we are used to that with the Minitel but still !!!! this is like going back to the middle age).

Dave Bruckmayr from Germany writes:

I live in Frankfurt, Germany and work in the Internet business. You are completely right about WAP. It is useless and costly and the WAP phones are a joke.

Rudy Nadler-Nir from South Africa writes:

.. just a quick word, to congratulate you on you astute observation/s of the ongoing WAP fiasco. Here, in South Africa, most people still see WAP through the hype-filters. I, for one, was one of those who advised clients to be cautious in adopting the technology for any "mission-critical" thinking.. was I vindicated? You bet!

How Free is the Internet?

Kieran Curtain from Acumen Multimedia in Australia writes:

In the latest Alertbox column, I was intrigued by your assertion that: "The Internet has been the freest medium in the history of humanity and has gained much of its value from the ability of anybody to put up any service they can think of without having to ask permission."

My experience has been that the Internet is a free medium at the initial time of publishing of each page, but that it is also one of the most easily censored media in practice. I have first-hand experience of a site host pulling down pages in response to a single (baseless and vindictive) complaint from a member of the public. Fearful of legal repercussions, many hosting services have a "pull down first, ask questions later" attitude. On the other end of this communication transaction, it is a simple matter for employers or other interested parties to monitor and restrict access to information as - or indeed before - a user attempts to view it. You may not be aware that here in Australia, government regulations have recently been passed that will enable authorities to shut down:

  • ISPs that allow acces to "offensive" sites
  • Hosting services that host "offensive" sites
if and when complaints are received about them. Of course, the definition of "offensive" will rest entirely with the censorship authorities.

Granted, the Internet is a lot more tightly controlled in this country than it is in the USA, but given that the USA generally has stricter media censorship laws than Australia, it may not be long before similar measures are introduced there. If so, it will be real test as to how free the Internet really is.

Jakob's reply: It is true that there is a risk of censorship on the Internet. This is compounded by the fact that Web access is a link of steps: you only get the page if every step of the way works. So there are more choke points for the Web than for traditional media.

For example, you can shut a website down by getting to its hosting service or by intercepting IP packets at a proxy server level or country-specific gateway. Or you can install software on your local computers in a corporate setting or other controlled environment such as a library.

Sometimes such censorship can even be appropriate and driven by the users themselves: for example, I am running a browser add-on that prevents the download of advertising banners since I know that I am not going to click on them anyway.

Mostly, though, censorship is problematic, but the good thing about the Internet is that it is so big and flexible that it is hard to truly shut somebody down. Eternal vigilance is known to be the price of freedom, so we must continually monitor AOL, France Telecom, and others who may be tempted to abuse their power.

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