The Wireless Web: Spacesuits Needed

I try, I really do. I held off buying a cellular phone for years. I still don’t have a Palm Pilot. I managed to put off buying a stereo for long enough that my PC became a stereo. But sometimes my alternate personality takes over — the early-adopter, gadget-loving personality, and uses my wallet to buy some unnecessary toy, play with it for two weeks, and then bury it in the closet where it belongs.

This time, alter-Joel used my money to sign me up for the latest exciting service: “Wireless Web”, a.k.a. WAP service, from Verizon Wireless (mongrel spawn of BellAtlantic, GTE, and AirTouch) . This is the “service” that lets you “surf” the “web” on your cellphone. Hmmm.

I had just gotten this phone a couple of months ago, so, like most new cellphones, it already had the microbrowser capability built-in. To get access to Wireless Web, all I had to do was call Verizon and sign up. They charged me $10 a month, plus airtime. More on the cost later.

The ordering process offered a brief insight into how thoroughly mismanaged big telecom companies like Verizon can be. It was a four step process, which will be familiar to anyone who has tried to order any service from any telecom recently:

  1. Try to order the service several times. Discover that the voicemail option to order the service just hangs up on you if you call after normal business hours.
  2. Order the service during normal business hours. Promised it will work within 24 hours.
  3. 2 days later, call back. Fight with telephone menu hell.
  4. They say, “whoops!” and activate the service instantly.

Whenever you order something and they say that the service will start “within x days”, you can tell that you discovered a business that has a turd-drop process in place. That’s a technical term. You see, the people taking orders for the service aren’t really equipped to turn it on. They just generate a list and drop it, like a turd, in a file somewhere. Once in a while someone else who really knows how to turn on the service comes along and picks up all the turds that have accumulated. Any shell script programmer will recognize this pattern: you have one program running that occasionally needs to get something done, and it does it by dropping a file in a pre-agreed place. Another program is constantly looking in that place, and when it shows up, it does its work. It’s an ugly hack and no programmer would consider this to be good programming style, because so many things can go wrong.

The thing of it was, the person who took my order couldn’t turn on the service, but of course, when I called to complain, they were able to turn the service on right away. So why didn’t they just do that in the first place? Incompetence in business process engineering, I guess. It seems like a costly waste of money to me.

But I’m getting off the point. The service did, eventually, go on, so when I clicked “Launch Browser” on my phone, after about 5 seconds, I got the exciting main menu:

You can probably tell that typing on this thing is a bit of a pain. Here’s how it works: to type a given letter, you press the key it’s on once, twice, three times, or four times. “2” is A, but “22” is B. So, to type out “Vampire”, you would press 8882674477733, then you’d realize that you typed “Vamphre” by mistake, then you’d play with the arrow keys to try to edit it. While you are typing, there’s a button which toggles between CAPS, lower case, numbers, and punctuation modes. The “1” key can be used for space, dot, @, comma, and other punctuation, with the most common punctuation conveniently arranged first.

Apparently teenagers in Finland have gotten really good at all this. I find that even typing a one sentence email is a bit of an exercise. Better to make a voice call (and risk actually having to speak to a human!)

The screen on my Motorola Startac has room for four lines. The top line is often used for a title, and the bottom line is almost always used to describe the “softkeys”: the two buttons that can do different things depending on the current mode. Reading email is not very fun with four lines, especially since one is used for the softkeys. You get about 7 words on the screen at once. Joy.

Although it’s called the “Wireless Web”, it’s not really the web. Because of the tiny screens, regular web sites would be unusable on this service. Instead, web designers are being asked to create separate wireless web sites using a language called WML, which is a lot like HTML, the lingua-franca of web pages. There’s been a bit of complaining about WML (“why isn’t it just HTML?”) but the truth is, the way these tiny screens work, it makes a lot of sense to have a language that is optimized for tiny screens and tiny amounts of bandwidth. Although many web sites are carping about the cost of developing two versions of their service, existing HTML pages just would not work on a four line screen. If you’re not willing to work hard to squeeze your content into this space, you might as well just not be on the wireless web. Sites like PayPal, Google, and Amazon have completely reengineered their offerings in WML. For example, Amazon has apparently decided that asking you to sign up for an account on tiny keyboards is just too silly, so you can only order books if you already have an existing Amazon account that you created on the web.

You may have heard a lot of whining about the WAP protocol, which has been criticized extensively for being proprietary, stupid, and a complete attempt to reinvent TCP/IP without the benefit of, well, TCP/IP. Although the criticism is true, the truth is, the WAP protocol itself just doesn’t matter to web site developers, because there’s a gateway that translates the WAP requests into HTTP requests. As far as the web site developer is concerned, you just write your site using WML instead of HTML, and serve it up using a regular web server like Apache.

What Web Sites Can I Get?

This is the number one question that the cellular service providers don’t want you to know the answer to. The answer is a bit tricky so pay close attention.

Some providers are providing an emasculated version of the wireless web that only allows you to get to a few “featured” sites, basically, sites that have paid for the honor of being on that service. This is the approach taken by AT&T Wireless, among others. These providers do not allow you to enter a URL for any site. It reminds me of the bad old days of AOL, when there were about 100 neat services available on AOL, but that was it. If somebody wanted to publish information for AOL, they had to make a pilgrimage to Virginia and sign a deal. But then the Internet came along, and anybody could be a publisher, and now there are a billion sites out there, and every online service had to get with the program and let people see web sites, or they would be out of business faster than you can say “Dinosaur”. The unbelievable stupidity of the cellular providers that haven’t learned this lesson and are trying to create their own private micro-sub-set of the wireless web is outrageous. Do not use their service unless you’re the kind of person who would consider buying Internet access that only let you go to a dozen web sites.

Other cellphone companies, including Verizon, let you access any WML site. There’s a way to type a URL and then make a bookmark, which is handy. I’ve made bookmarks for Google, Amazon, PayPal, and Visto (which I use to check my regular email). On my phone, there’s only room for 10 bookmarks, and you get to them by holding down one of the number keys. For example, if I hold down the 3 key for a few seconds, it will go to Visto.

There are only a handful of WML sites live today, although silicon valley herd-mentality venture capitalists are so gaga about wireless everything, I’ll betcha there will be a whole new generation of overcapitalized wireless sites soon. In the meantime, you can’t really go to HTML sites over cellphones. Google is offering a service that translates any HTML site for you into WML, which, theoretically, lets you visit HTML sites, too. But the trouble is that the screen is very tiny, pages are limited to about 1500 bytes, and pictures and tables don’t show up, so many sites are completely useless when you read them through Google’s translation service.

Can you do anything useful?

Ah, that’s more tricky. Here are some of the useful things I’ve found that I can do:

  • I used the online white and yellow pages once to find a nearby Barnes & Nobles. Of course, I could have just called Information.
  • I’ve checked my email at the beach. Really. It’s kind of embarrassing (“dammit, man, you’re on vacation“), but it’s sort of fun to see all my Joel on Software fan mail flooding in. I’m using to check email, because they have a decent WAP site and they can check your regular POP3 mailbox for you. (There’s built-in email on the phone, but nobody sends email to that address, which is why I use Visto, which I recommend). I’ve only SENT email once from this thing, but it’s just too much of a pain, and it’s easier to call.
  • Reading the New York Times Book Review at the beach, I ordered three books from Amazon, using a pre-existing account, in a couple of minutes.

If you actually find anything else useful or entertaining you can do with this wireless web stuff, that’s actually better than just making a phone call, email me, OK?

Is it worth it?

Ah, and herein lies the rub. Are you sitting down?

Yep, that’s right, my phone bill was $284 for the first month of playing around with this service, and I didn’t even play with it that much. I tried to analyze the bill to figure out why it was so much. I had used 147 “minutes” of data time during the month. Actually, I probably didn’t use close to that much, but cellular providers love to round up to the nearest minute.  And the crappy cellular system tends to knock you offline a lot. When this happens, the phone says “Connecting” for about 5 seconds and then reconnects you. But it means that you often end up paying for the same minute twice:

I had a bunch of free minutes with my calling plan, but I was over the limit, so many of these minutes were 35 cents each. After this bill, I think I’m going to limit my use to real emergencies like ordering cookbooks. I just can’t afford to explore any more.

A couple of cellular providers have been advertising “free wireless web.” This is pretty dishonest. What they mean is usually that they’ll waive the signup charge, or even waive the monthly fee. But considering that they charge for airtime, and they round up the minutes gleefully, the airtime can be pretty damn expensive. If you sign up for wireless web, make sure that you have enough free minutes on your calling plan.

So, will wireless web take off?

In 1992, I was in the library at the University of Washington. They had set up a terminal connected to a new service called Gopher, which was, in many ways, the precursor to the web. It was very exciting. You could go to gopher sites for lots of universities all over the world. Some of them even had their course listings online! I remembered thinking about all the possibilities. When I saw Mosaic for the first time, there wasn’t much you could do or see, but I realized that it was only a matter of time before this thing exploded.

Looking at wireless web today, I get that same gut feeling as I did when I looked at the web, way back when: it looks like a ghost town, without very many useful things yet. You can make all kinds of claims about its weakness (it’s slow, expensive, tiny, and has no sites…), but then again, all those claims were true in the early days of the web, too, and look where we are today. Every VC on the planet has heard the story of Jim Clark discovering Mosaic a million times. Every VC and Silicon Valley entrepreneur has been searching for “The Next Internet” for so long that as soon as something comes along that sounds like it might be The Next Big Thing, they jump in.

Will history repeat itself? Maybe, maybe not. The web was truly a revolution in the way that the printing press was a revolution, but wireless web seems to be just an incremental step, not a revolution. In any case, you can debate all night about whether there will ever be truly useful wireless web services, but I’m starting to think that the high price charged by the cellular providers is going to choke off the oxygen to this fledgling service before it can get started.

Remember that when the web started, most Internet access was unmetered: you paid a low monthly fee no matter how long you used the service. But as the wireless web gets started, the fees are outrageous, and the early adopters are going to get reamed by their first phone bill. If you think you can make a profit in a wireless world in which the telcos are sucking out all the oxygen, well, you had better bring a spacesuit.

Further reading:

About the author.

In 2000 I co-founded Fog Creek Software, where we created lots of cool things like the FogBugz bug tracker, Trello, and Glitch. I also worked with Jeff Atwood to create Stack Overflow and served as CEO of Stack Overflow from 2010-2019. Today I serve as the chairman of the board for Stack Overflow, Glitch, and HASH.