WAP: The Internet at Your Fingertips
What is WAP exactly? WAP stands for "Wireless Access Protocol", which is fancy-speak for a standard that allows your cell phone to hop onto the Internet wirelessly, effectively giving you access to the "mobile web". It isn't exactly practical to bring a laptop with you everywhere you go, because you would still have to find a WiFi hotspot before you can get on the Internet. Instead, it is much easier to browse the web on the mobile handset that you carry around with you all the time anyways. Your cell phone is a powerful tool, not only for taking pictures and playing MP3s, but also for accessing the Internet.
Way back in 1997, a group of companies -- Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson and Phone.com -- got together to develop the WAP standard in order to universalize mobile access to the Internet. Today, there are more than 350 companies who are a part of the "WAP Forum".
Mobile Web and its Utter Simplicity
Think back. Do you remember when the Internet first emerged and found its way into the mainstream? Websites were a lot simpler in those days, with far fewer graphics and much more basic designs. If you reach even further into tech history and look to the days of BBS and UseNet, the "Internet" was essentially text-based. The primary reason was simply slow transfer speeds (along with processing power, graphical prowess, and similar concerns). With the best modems on the market only capable of doing 14.4kbps, it would have taken an eternity to load a graphic-heavy website.
Fast forward to today and it is much the same on cell phones. Data transfer speeds over a cellular network are not nearly as fast as your high-speed DSL or Cable connection at home (although EV-DO and other 3G standards are closing the gap). Add to this that the display on the typical cell phone is rarely more than 150 x 150 pixels (with the exception of some smartphones and PDA phones). As such, it would prove difficult to translate a conventional website onto such a small screen. This is why publishers must work to create simple websites that are more catered to (or "optimized for") cell phone usage if they hope to make a splash in the mobile web segment.
The Web Optimized for Cell Phones
In order to optimize the Internet for use on cell phones, WAP makes use of something called WML, or "Wireless Markup Language". In many ways, WML for mobile web is akin to HTML for standard Internet. WML traces its roots to HDML (Handheld Device Markup Language, developed by Phone.com) and XML (eXtensible Markup Language, most recently popularized by its use with RSS feeds).There are several elements that are an integral part of WML that are key to WAP doing what it does best: displaying the Internet on the small screen of a cellular phone. As previously discussed, WAP mobile web is designed with slow transfer speeds in mind (mostly text, with very few -- if any -- graphics). They tend to avoid long sentences and too much "crowding", in order to improve readability. Because there isn't a mouse like how you'd find on a computer, ease of navigation is also paramount.
Several famous websites -- CNN, Amazon, The New York Times, and so forth -- have WAP sites set up, which are essentially simplified versions of their full-blown online experience. For those who haven't set up a special WAP "portal" (as they are sometimes called), it is possible for an application to translate raw HTML into WML, but if it was never intended for use on a cell phone, the result can be very difficult to read and/or navigate, rendering it virtually useless.
What is Available with WAP Mobile Web?
There are more than a billion websites on the grand ol' Internet, but only a small handful has been optimized for viewing on a mobile phone with WAP. That's not to say that the content is completely lacking -- far from, actually -- but you are limited to which sites you can visit.
The vast majority of WAP content is text-based, so any kind of graphical content is rare to find. Don't expect to find a WAP-ready YouTube, Google Video, or anything of that sort. Instead, the focus is mostly on sports scores, news highlights (shorter stories than your average physical newspaper), stock quotes, weather reports, entertainment news, movie listings, and the like.
Some of the more popular WAP mobile web sites out there include USA Today, The Weather Channel, Amazon, Slashdot (via Fizzl), and Yahoo!
Almost Every Cell Phone Can Use WAP Internet
You don't need the most powerful cell phone to make use of WAP mobile web. Most new mobile phones on the market today have built-in mini-browsers that allow you to surf the cell phone-optimized Internet, but if you have an older handset (more than 3-4 years), you may not have WAP available to you.