WAP Backlash

by Jakob Nielsen on July 9, 2000

Summary: Experience with WAP in Europe shows that it is hard to use. Because of the miserable usability of the small phones, services must be re-designed for each handset, increasing maintenance costs.

The WAP Backlash has started in Europe:

  • Most speakers at last week's NetMedia'2000 conference in London proclaimed WAP a temporary aberration that delivers substandard services.
  • British and continental newspapers are full of stories about WAP phones that don't work and services that are difficult to use.
  • Many commentators point out the simple fact that since you have a phone in your hand, most tasks are faster to perform by simply placing a voice telephone call than by using WAP.

( WAP = Wireless Application Protocol; a way to access Web content over mobile telephones.)

Things have changed greatly:

October 1999:
  • I was a rather lonely voice when I called WAP the Wrong Approach to Portability in my October 1999 Alertbox.
  • Most other commentators were very keen on WAP during 1999 when the hype was in full gear.
April 2000:
As recent as during my last trip to Europe in April 2000, most people had great expectations for WAP. Cooler heads who had conducted initial usability studies of the first WAP phones did raise a few concerns in April 2000, but the received wisdom was still in favor of WAP just a few months ago.
May-June 2000:
The picture started changing and the first negative reviews were published in European newspapers that had tried WAP services and pronounced them useless.
July 2000:
A new consensus has now been reached: nobody predicts great things for WAP any more. The excitement has shifted to:
  • Future mobile services with bigger screens and faster, always-on connections (except for the British telecom company Orange which cluelessly supports a technology called HSCSD with an unpleasant need to dial up every time anything is downloaded).
  • The Japanese I-mode system which is superior to WAP as a current-generation service.

Most notably, a NetMedia'2000 speaker (who had changed affiliation since being listed in the conference program as a WAP speaker) started his talk somewhat like this: "I used to be head of WAP marketing for a major telephone company, but I have concluded that it's not what it was hyped to be and I now work at an ASP." A more promising acronym to work for, indeed.

Speakers from various Web design shops in London were not quite as straightforward (they like the fees they harvest from WAP clients), but still said that they have started to prefer the term "mobile Internet" in their pitches. Reading between the lines, this is a way to disassociate themselves from the coming WAP failures and retain credibility as providers for the next generation of solutions.

(Update: after writing this article, we conducted user research with WAP phones and got even more dismal results.)

Developing for WAP: End of "Design Once, Display Anywhere"

WAP almost always has low usability. WAP has miserable usability for many reasons: ridiculously small screens, slow bandwidth, and the need to place a new call every time the device needs to connect. The digits-only keypad is a laughable input device, leading to the guideline to use numeric PIN codes instead of full passwords any time authentication is required. Also, the actual telephones vary in their design and sometimes have poor human factors that don't deliver as good a user experience as would be possible under the given constraints.

Because of these many weaknesses, designers of WAP services have concluded that they need to optimize each service for each of the different telephones and its specific restrictions and interaction techniques. Designing a separate service for each handset model is necessary: the weaker the platform, the more it becomes necessary to squeeze every last bit of usability out of it by having a tightly targeted and optimized design.

The sad conclusion: it will be much more expensive to develop services for WAP than for conventional browsers. Much of the early success of the Web was due to the simplicity of development where you could design a single website and have it work across platforms. The browser wars taught us that websites don't want the expense of having to maintain multiple versions. Another point against WAP.

Closed Services: The Walled Garden

Most of the big telephone companies are operating closed WAP services where their customers are prevented from accessing some of the sites they want: only sites that have a deal with the phone company are allowed on the phones. Clearly an anti-trust violation and some legal cases are already in progress in Europe to force open access to third-party services.

There are two reasons to worry about the "walled garden" approach to mobile Internet services:

  • By partitioning the Web into small pieces, the closed services go against Metcalfe's Law. The European telephone companies are about to destroy 90% of the potential value of the mobile Internet so that they can charge monopoly rents on the remaining 10%. Maybe good for them; a disaster for society and the network economy.
  • There is an obvious danger to democracy anytime we stifle freedom of speech. 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. Narrowly specialized content and solutions are the beauty of the Web and should be preserved.

Mobile Internet Strategy

The implications for your corporate mobile strategy are:

  1. Skip the current generation of WAP. Developing services for it will divert your attention and resources from the more promising next-generation services and you will be wasting a lot of money on services that will only be used for a year.
    • Don't worry about losing the first-mover advantage for mobile Internet. It will be big, but in a different form than the current systems, and anybody who actually buys a WAP phone now will discard it and buy a new mobile Internet device next year. The new systems will be so much better than the old ones that people will gladly pay to upgrade. Even traditional mobile phones have a very fast upgrade cycle where most people only keep their phones for a year or two.
    • If you do decide to invest in WAP right now, make sure that you can recover your investment in a year.
    • And if you do launch WAP services, heed the advice to optimize the user interface for each handset. Doing so is more expensive, but if you don't do it, your service will be so miserable that it is guaranteed to fail.
  2. Prepare to launch mobile services for the next-generation systems in 2001 (outside the United States) or 2002 (in the U.S. — unless a miracle happens to get our cellular network in shape sooner).
    • Perform task analysis on mobile users to identify the areas where new services can make a big difference. Follow people around for a day and note every time they need information or communication (even if they don't know themselves that they need this because they have never experienced mobile connectedness).
    • Visioneering exercises: now is the time to think the deep thoughts before you get caught up in launching live services.
    • Prototype user interfaces on hand-held systems with decent-sized screens like the HP Jornada or the Palm Pilot. Even if you can't connect them to the Internet wirelessly, you can test out the designs through a regular modem. Dig out an old 28.8 modem to simulate the likely mobile bandwidth next year.

Read More

Reader comments on this Alertbox (including why SMS is so popular despite many of the same usability problems as WAP).

Report from usability study of WAP: findings regarding the usability of WAP itself, WAP content, and WAP services, based on in-depth studies of users and their behavior with WAP phones.

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