From: Rohit Khare (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Thu May 18 2000 - 14:27:11 PDT
Wireless Web Fight Gets Catty
by David Sims
11:30 a.m. May. 17, 2000 PDT
AMSTERDAM -- Spend a few days hanging out with the folks who built the
foundation of the Web, and you'll be amazed that these highly technical
academics ever birthed something so fun and easy to use.
The protocol wonks of the World Wide Web Consortium get impassioned debating
the merits of transport layers and the relative benefits of "XML-RPC versus
SOAP." How could they have begotten the Hamster Dance and the Mahir
The people who build and maintain the technology that moves data around the
world this week are jousting over how to take the Web wireless at the W3C's
annual meeting. Although they're still discussing old favorites like
hypertext, XML, and convergence, wireless dominates many conversations.
The imminent arrival of several hundred million users on Wireless
Application Protocol (WAP)-enabled phones -- 525 million by 2003, according
to Strategy Analysts -- is forcing the W3C to figure out how to deal with
all these Web users who can't sit still long enough to use a tethered
The idea of being able to access all information, anywhere, anytime, was
part of the original vision of the Web as defined by its creator (and W3C
director) Tim Berners-Lee. But as often happens, a group of impatient
companies has independently grabbed the ball and is running with it --
forcing the W3C to figure out how to play with them.
Software company Phone.com and the WAP Forum it co-founded, along with
several handset manufacturers (Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson), has defined its
own rules for displaying Web content on wireless phones, using WAP and the
Wireless Markup Language (WML).
On its brochure Web pages, the WAP Forum says it's working closely with the
W3C, but it was clear that some in the W3C resent the company plowing ahead
with its own new rules, and not waiting on the W3C's more ponderous process.
Some Web standards diehards are convinced that XML and its HTML variant,
XHTML, are all you need to display content on mobile devices, so the fact
that Phone.com is going ahead with WML ruffles some feathers. But the W3C is
starting to come on board with WAP, and now says on its website that WAP is
on the path to becoming a recommendation.
Having a company or small contingency strike out and promote its own
technology as a standard is nothing new for the W3C. Developers will
remember that Microsoft and Netscape ruffled feathers by creating their own
markup tags that they said users were hungry for, things like the infamous
"Where is Netscape today?" boomed one indignant W3C member, Murray Maloney,
at a WAP panel Wednesday morning. "It's a part of AOL, and it doesn't have
that kind of control anymore.... The people who are working on WAP need to
get with the program."
Bruce Martin, a Phone.com representative who played the role of the black
hat on the panel, professed allegiance to the W3C and its processes. But his
company is out ahead dealing with new issues, and like Netscape and
Microsoft before it, is unlikely to wait when customers are eager to buy.
But designing user-friendly interfaces does not seem to be a primary concern
for many of the meetings' participants.
In addition to defending Phone.com, Martin reminded the audience that mobile
users have different needs. "It's not just that the interface is different,"
he said. "It's that people use it differently. The user tends to be very
focused on a specific task."
At Wednesday's WAP panel, when the conversation drifted too deeply into a
discussion of transport layer protocols, one panel member from Ericsson,
Johan Hjelm, tried to get the group back on track. "The important thing
isn't what carrier type you use, the important thing is the user
It was a dead giveaway of the audience's sympathies that in an crowd of
1,000 people, only one pair of hands applauded his jibe.
Martin's colleague Don Schuerholz, the manager of the developer program at
Phone.com, told the audience at another session that too many people are
trying to port their Web pages and services to phone handsets, without
considering the user. "Think about the value of your application for someone
in a mobile computing environment."
That kind of thinking is leading to the return of interest in push
technology. Push had its heyday as a buzzword in 1996, and Schuerholz is
convinced it will be back with WAP phones. The small screens and limited
memory are much better suited to receive chunks of requested information, he
said, including things like sports scores and the oft-cited stock quotes.
Other presentations showed that some academics pay attention to the
differences of mobile users and desktop users. A team from Stanford
University's Digital Libraries Technologies group, for example, showed off a
power browser designed for the Palm operating system. It featured more
controlled search capabilities, helping with shortcuts and limiting results
to a number manageable for a small screen.
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