21 September, 2007

Vodafone’s storm in a tea cup

cartoon image of two men fighting

A debate has started on Vodafone’s BetaVine. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that Vodafone provided me with exclusive rights to seed interest in the wider industry to help launch the Portal, after providing advice prior to its launch. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find the time to continue commentating about it. Anyway, it’s doing exactly what I had hoped. It’s stimulating and supporting conversation within the industry. In this instance, it’s a heated debate which is likely to raise more awareness for the Portal if nothing else.

Luca Passani is the culprit (I mean that in the nicest possible way) responsible for starting the debate. If there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s starting a debate. Unfortunately he doesn’t know how to agree to disagree, or even respect the fact that he can sometimes be wrong.

My intention here is not to discuss the debate itself but instead, get people to use the right terminology. Ok, so my post about the correct spelling of Web site was a bit of a joke, but knowing the difference between WAP and the mobile Web is not, as it impacts end users for the worse.

It was a TechCrunch post that inspired me to write this note. I was about to post a comment but quickly realised that my message is important (and long) enough to warrant it’s own post. I’ve written about this previously where Luca has commented along with Google, Microsoft, .mobi, Opera and others. See here and here.

In my opinion, Luca has absolutely no interest in seeing the Web as we know it on the desktop, come to mobile phones. He is in favour of WAP and is an expert on the subject. WAP is not the mobile Web though, they are two entirely different technologies and he doesn’t have an appreciation for Web trends.

  • WAP = sites built only for mobile phones
  • Web = sites which should work on any device

WAP browsers and Web browsers look the same but what they display is completely different. One generates revenue for Operators and Content Providers and the other provides end users the ability to search and browse the Web. That’s why most end users don’t know the difference between a WAP site and a Web site. However, it’s not good enough to assume that they don’t care. It’s also wrong to assume they don’t want a choice.

In more detail
WAP sites are sites which have been built specifically to work on mobile phones. They do not work on desktop computers. This means if you come across a WAP site on your phone and wish to email the URL to a friend so they can see it at home, they can’t unless they’re using a mobile.

I used to own an LG Chocolate phone to demonstrate this point when giving presentations at conferences. I’d ask someone for the URL of their company Web site and then explain that it was impossible for me to view it on my new cool phone because it didn’t have a Web browser capable of displaying it.

Not all mobiles have browsers capable of displaying Web sites. Some phones come with a Web browser but it’s sometimes removed or hidden down the menu system by the Operator (not the manufacturer). Operators have always been extremely keen to keep it this way as they make money from WAP through revenue share deals with content providers.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Content Providers to which Luca and TechCrunch refer, are not likely to want users to access the Web (as invented by Tim Berners-Lee and harmonized by the W3C), as you do on a desktop computer. Otherwise they’ll stop making money through their commercial agreements with Operators. This means end users get whatever WAP sites Operators believe will generate the most revenue. This is not in the best interest of end users today.

It made sense to only offer WAP sites when mobiles were unable to display Web sites. It also makes sense to continue building WAP sites while mobile devices continue to improve, standards are adopted, prices come down, speeds improve and developers build Web sites so they work better on mobile devices.

In my opinion, we’re almost there. You only have to look at the recent launch of the iPhone to see what’s possible. It won’t be long before this capability is more widespread across more devices and the above points are addressed. As I keep saying, I’ve heard all the same arguments whilst at AOL in the mid 90′s. People use to say that online marketing would never take off because the Web was too slow, yada yada yada. The same type of people used to say that TV would never take off because it was so much smaller than the cinema screen.

End users do care about the difference between the two, or at least they would if told they were restricted to what the Operator wants them to see. Mobile stake holders make too many assumptions about what users want. That’s why the industry is so crap at getting it right.

So, can you see the difference between the two? If you had a mobile which stopped you from accessing the Web, would you care? Would you be happy to only view the WAP sites that your Operator forces upon you?

Please stop referring to WAP as mobile Web, it’s not. Just call it WAP.

From a customer point of view, you buy a mobile so you can surf the Web as you do from your desktop computer. Would you be happy to learn that you’re only able to use iMode, Live or other WAP sites?


18 Responses to “Vodafone’s storm in a tea cup”

  1. Luca Passani 21 September 2007 at 11:35 pm #

    Paul, I am not sure I got the initial part about Vodafone. Did Vodafone ask you to do what before they launched the portal?
    Anyway, if you really “contributed” to the vodafone/novarra launch, this would explain why they are fucking it up so hard: you wouldn’t recognize an average mobile phone user if one was to hit you on the head (and I mean it in the nicest way possible too, of course).

    So, let me address this point where WAP and Mobile Web are, according to your distorted view, different things. I use the two terms virtually interchangeably, because when people (including TBL of W3C) talk about one or two billion mobile web clients, they are talking about WAP, or they would be talking about 20 or 30 million PDA-like devices. In that case, nobody would be giving a damn about mobile, because the market would be too small and niche to even care.

    So, you ask someone for the URL of a regular web site and you can’t see it on a mobile phone? so fucking what? by the same logic a radio speaker could ask a caller to smile and demonstrate that they can’t see it!

    The iPhone is getting there where you indicate? not really.
    First, let me clarify that I happen to be the owner of an iPhone (so I had a chance to play around with it quite a it). I commend Apple for the great deal of innovation that they injected into the new mobile phone at their first attempt. But above all, I am grateful to Apple for making my point (that great mobile apps need to be built for mobile from the ground up) and refute yours (that a regular website will hardly have much appeal to mobile users unless an effort is spent to “mobilize” the content).
    Here is an excersize for you (and for whoever happens to own an iPhone). You can connect with EDGE or WiFi, the point will be demonstrated anyway.


    (major italian newspaper) and count seconds until the page is fully loaded. You’ll stop anywhere between 8 and 25. Once the page is loaded, you’ll be unable to read the news. Too small. You can zoom. Right. You’ll read one headline and about 10 words of text and then click your way to another 15 seconds wait to read the actual news. Not very cool.

    Now point your iPhone to the mobile version (nothing to do with adobe flashlite in spite of the name):


    wait 2 to 5 seconds. No need to zoom. Scrolling with the thumb is simple and fast as hell. Click on the piece of news you want to read. Another 2 seconds (pictures included). Wow! that’s mobile. That’s a service that people will use when they have 2 minutes to kill while they wait for the buss….or on the train…or wherever. Not the regular website. The “mobile web” site.
    Now repeat the experiment with:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk vs http://www.bbc.co.uk


    http://www.dagbladet.no vd http://wap.dagbladet.no

    I am sure that you can come up with one thousand other examples by yourself.

    In short, will you please do us a favor and stop selling bullshit to vodafone? those guys are powerful. They but the bullshit and push it to millions of people on their network…


  2. Jesse 22 September 2007 at 3:38 am #

    You don’t need to have sinister or niche-protecting intentions to try to build sites that are meant for cell phones — there is a genuine need for well-designed UI that is geared toward the device that the user is using to access it, whatever that device is.

    Would you replace your desktop monitor with a 3 inch screen? Just because you can view a web site meant for the desktop doesn’t mean that it’s a pleasant experience. There will always be room for mobile customization, so long as there are mobile devices.

  3. gareth wong 22 September 2007 at 8:45 pm #

    I agree with your points as a consumer. Also as a long term subscriber of Vodafone (in the 90′s, my bill was 1-2k/month!), and I see all the benefits of having no walled garden,

    However, from the mobile operator’s perspective, they spent millions if not billions in creating the network, due to the market structure, they are still not in a position to reap the real profit of their investment (given the clampdown of roaming rate etc.).. they are just moving in earnest haphazarly into content… if they open their walled garden too soon, we might see some spectacular failure soon…

    don’t forget mobile network is now providing much needed communication for a lot of population, it is more essential than the internet in the bigger scheme of things.

    Saying that I am all supportive of having opened network. But I am still from the 90′s, my tarrif is still voice based, and I rarely use WAP or get any content at all! a bit backward really.

    this turns out to be pure ranting.. and no time to check grammar and spelling, apologies.


  4. Mario 23 September 2007 at 9:20 pm #

    Hi Paul,

    I’ve had a weekend away from the computer so thought I’d return to our little twitter discussion :-)

    I still don’t get what you’re trying to say though, I’m afraid. Who is this aimed at?

    So… I tried to answer your questions…

    [Q] If you had a mobile which stopped you from accessing the Web, would you care?

    [A] Yes I would. But nobody’s stopping me from accessing the web on my phone. Certainly not developers of mobile-optimised sites.

    [Q] Would you be happy to only view the WAP sites that your Operator forces upon you?

    [A] No I wouldn’t, but again, that’s not what’s happening. I’m with Vodafone, and if they stopped me from accessing any web or wap or imode or whatever you call it-site I’d be switching provider. Is that your point – that there should be no walled gardens? If so, I don’t think many people would disagree with you.

    [Q] From a customer point of view, you buy a mobile so you can surf the Web as you do from your desktop computer. Would you be happy to learn that you’re only able to use iMode, Live or other WAP sites?

    [A] Again, it’d be totally pissed off. But… why is this an issue? Does this happen? Who exactly stops me from viewing any site I like, be it web or WAP or whatever? Even if this did happen, who would be to blame for this? Developers building mobile-optimised sites? Or walled-garden operators? If the latter, then I feel your arguments are pointing in the wrong way. If the former, please explain how, as I quite genuinely don’t understand..


  5. Paul Walsh 24 September 2007 at 3:19 pm #

    @Luca, no point in answering your first paragraph as we’ve already done the anatomy size comparison thing on the W3C mailing list, which I remember shut you up from telling everyone how great you were and how everyone else didn’t know what they were talking about.

    Regarding your third para “So, you ask someone for the URL of a regular web site and you can’t see it on a mobile phone? so fucking what?”

    This is exactly the problem with your attitude, you don’t care about the open Web coming to mobile phones. This is why I’ve always maintained that you have little to contribute to the improvement of mobile Web (i.e. *not* WAP). You’ve admitted your lack of care for the Web on a number of occasions. Some people do want to access the Web from their mobile and to think otherwise is naive at best. Who are you to say users shouldn’t access the Web from mobile phones? It’s about providing both WAP and Web for me.

    Most people in developing countries are more likely to access the Web from their mobile as it’s cheaper to role out mobile networks than it is fixed line. I care about bringing the Web to these people and not just WAP content as (previously) pushed by Operators. With the garden wall tumbling, mobile Content Providers are afraid for their existence.

    Vodafone isn’t a client of Segala, so we’re not selling them anything. That said, I think you’re referring to them ‘listening’ to our/my advice? If so, then they’ve got enough experts such as Daniel Appelquist to help them better understand how to bring the Web to mobile users.

  6. Paul Walsh 24 September 2007 at 3:26 pm #

    @Jesse – I agree. I believe there’s a use case for both WAP and Web content on mobile phones. For the best part, WAP is much more user-friendly and will be for a long time to come. This is mostly true because *Web* developers until now, haven’t had much help by way of guidelines to help them build Web sites that work better on mobile phones.

    Web access on mobiles has also been hampered by the lack of browser standards, limitations on input devices, data charges, speeds and of course, screen resolution.

    All of the above are being addressed at present and in the near future. So, unless Content Providers want to make the same mistake as AOL and continue to think they can provide premium content when there’s lots of free alternative content on the open Web, then they’re in for a shock!

    Operators are beginning to realise this, hence why companies such as O2 are making huge change by releasing the iPhone instead of trying to keep everyone within the walled garden of iMode and Active.

    I remember when the Operators were telling me how mad I was when articulating this same message before they started to open up access to the open Web. Now I’m being told the same thing by the Content Providers, even after the Operators start to do as I said.

  7. Paul Walsh 24 September 2007 at 3:31 pm #

    @gareth – I agree. I think it’s unwise for any Operators to shut off WAP content in favour of access to the open Web. They should continue to provide the choice between the two.

    @ Mario – I’m hoping my previous comments address your comment. Let me know if I haven’t :)

    Regarding your point about users being restricted to WAP; this is happening. Buy the LG Chocolate handset and you’ll notice that it doesn’t have a browser which allows you to access the open Web. It comes with a WAP browser only.

    That said, this is a restriction by the vendor, not the Operator. This is probably because of its origin. It is however, just one example of a handset that doesn’t permit access to the Web.

    I’m calling upon the industry to get the terminology right as there’s much confusion within it, thereby confusing users.

  8. Mario 24 September 2007 at 3:40 pm #

    Paul, I can see your points WRT handset manufacturers and operators, as both of these could potentially limit my access to the web at large. But mobile content providers? How does a content provider who optimizes a site for mobile use stop me from accessing the web if I like?

  9. Luca Passani 24 September 2007 at 3:42 pm #

    > we’ve already done the anatomy size comparison
    > thing on the W3C mailing list, which I remember
    > shut you up from telling everyone how great
    > you were and how everyone else didn’t know
    > what they were talking about.

    I am not sure what you mean by “shut me up”. I did disagree with W3C BPs (and so did many others which preferred to abandon the WG or avoid joining in the first place), but I gathered many more developer points with GAP (http://www.passani.it/gap/ ), which has become some kind of reference for developers new to mobile development all over the world.

    Anyway, I am sort of busy with my work at the moment and I don’t think that discussing with you about bringing the mobile web to third-world countries instead of food and clean water would be a valuable use of my time.
    In short, I’ll stop it here if you stop it here.


  10. Paul Walsh 24 September 2007 at 3:46 pm #

    @Mario – I don’t think Content Providers are doing anything wrong (full stop). I think there’s a need for content that has been created specifically for mobile phones. There will be a requirement for this forever too as some people will want mobile specific content that’s not applicable to desktop computer users.

    That said, I think it’s unwise for *all* Content Providers to continue to provide content specifically for mobile only. Why not cut the content once where possible and have it rendered everywhere. That is, have some adaptation so the content renders according to the device capability of the user.

  11. Paul Walsh 24 September 2007 at 3:49 pm #

    @Luca I’ll stop it here once I explain the anatomy thing – you were constantly stating that only you on the list had experience and expertise in mobile. I articulated mine, which received a positive response to you – i.e. you no longer voiced your concern over the lack of experience on the list.

    That said, I want to point out (to everyone else) that the W3C MWI group has a huge amount of talent and expertise in mobile and Web. It includes at least one representative from each stake holder.

  12. Wes Biggs 24 September 2007 at 4:22 pm #

    @Paul, just because a device doesn’t have an HTML/XHTML browser doesn’t mean it can’t support an off-garden web experience. The end user shouldn’t need to care whether adaptation is occurring on the handset, the network, or the content provider server (or not at all), as long as they have a good experience and are able to access the content and information they need.

    Per your definitions, I think the distinction between WAP and mobile web is an increasingly artificial one from the consumer’s point of view. I want to go to a URL and have it work on my mobile browser, period. Having two browsers on a phone (one for mobile web, one for WAP) is a technology-limitation-driven, user-confounding solution. You could potentially make the case for separate “on garden” vs. “off garden” browsers, but the reality is that operators want to blend these models, and you need to be able to do that in a single environment.

  13. Paul Walsh 24 September 2007 at 4:33 pm #

    @Wes “ust because a device doesn’t have an HTML/XHTML browser doesn’t mean it can’t support an off-garden web experience.”

    I’m not referring to the ‘experience’. I’m referring to access to the open Web, period. Naturally they shouldn’t care about adaptation, but this statement isn’t applicable here. Ideally, all handsets would have one browser that renders WAP and Web sites. But in reality, we don’t.

    “Per your definitions, I think the distinction between WAP and mobile web is an increasingly artificial one from the consumer’s point of view. I want to go to a URL and have it work on my mobile browser, period.”

    You’re being a little contradictory. The definition isn’t artificial. On one hand you’re saying WAP and Web is the same thing. Then you say “I want to go to a URL and have it work”. As I’ve pointed out, you are unable to simply go to 1 URL and have it work. Why? Well, because a lot of handsets don’t have browsers that will display Web sites.

    Would you say that the distinction between AOL content accessed via a proprietary client and the Web as accessed via a desktop browser, is artificial? The answer is no, but the distinction appears to be more obvious *today*. If I asked you the question in 1995 you might have said it’s the same thing, as you are with WAP and Web. At least, nearly every user back then would have thought it was the same.

    Unfortunately for AOL, they held onto the belief that users wouldn’t care about the difference between their walled garden and the open Web. They are now paying the price by moving to a new model when it was too late.

    So, technically they’re different but also, you need to remember that most Portals have one purpose; to generate revenue for Operators and Content Providers. The open Web is mostly made up of what’s called the ‘long tail’.

  14. James Pearce 24 September 2007 at 5:32 pm #

    Paul, where did you get those definitions of “web” and “WAP” from?

    In spirit, I see your point, but most “mobile web” arguments often come down to each side misunderstanding the vocabulary.

    So I can never be sure everyone’s singing from the same glossary :-)

    – “Web = sites which should work on any device”

    Sadly that’s not the case. There’s a difference between “made-for-mobile sites” and “not-made-for-mobile sites”. Vodafone’s activities attempt to target the latter due to a shortage of the former.

    Some sites are just never going to be useful for the mobile use-case. So “should” is too strong. IMHO.

  15. Wes Biggs 24 September 2007 at 7:11 pm #

    @Paul — “Ideally, all handsets would have one browser that renders WAP and Web sites. But in reality, we don’t.”

    My point is that a browser that, say, only supports WML, could still be used in combination with an in-network adaptation system like Novarra, and therefore provide access to the web.

    “On one hand you’re saying WAP and Web is the same thing.”

    Not at all. I’ll even stick to your definitions. As a user on a mobile, I want to access both WAP and Web URLs, and as long as they work, I don’t care which is which. But I mean the site should *work*, not just show up. To James’s point, a “not-made-for-mobile” site that happens to render on my phone because its browsers happens to speak HTML is of little value to either consumer, content provider, or operator if it can’t be properly utilized due to device constraints.

    Let me put a more constructive bent on it: I think the industry needs solutions that…
    1) Let any mobile browser view any web site. Smarter solutions will aid the mobile browser in the rendering process.
    2) Let mobile site builders provide their own adaptation, based on standards (i.e. “User-Agent”).
    3) Let consumers use a single browser application/interface to access all Internet sites, be they “made-for-mobile” or not.

    Operators with walled gardens and/or a lack of adaptation get #1 wrong. The Vodafone-Novarra system gets #2 wrong. T-Mobile’s web’n'walk and various recent semi-smart phones get #3 wrong. Is it really this hard?

  16. Paul Walsh 24 September 2007 at 8:11 pm #

    @James, I’m talking from the purist’s point of view. Assume I appreciate the need for ‘made for mobile devices’, adaptation, contextual representation yada, yada, yada.

    WAP and Web are two entirely different technologies, user requirements and marketing issues.

    @Wes, I don’t disagree with your first few paragraphs. But need you to assume I’m talking about browsers that *don’t* support non-WML sites.

    It’s not that difficult, offer the choice of WAP sites by using ‘listed’ content and offer access to the Web by providing a search engine as the default homepage.

  17. Parable 15 June 2008 at 5:53 pm #

    In Support of Luca, Changing a standard like that is criminal I for one will promptly be checking the routes for suing Vodafone for breach of Copyright!

    In support of Paul Walsh yeah it’d be great the web on my mobile problem is it doesn’t work, wap and mobile-web are one and the same a wap phone will badly render a web page so long as you don’t put the tag on the top of it.

    Having the web mobile is a must and creating simple Html documents with no at the top will mean any internet enabled mobile device be it wap or otherwisewill be able to read it.

    I only want to serve up 1 web address and thus insist It’s able to be filtered.

    In the future all devices will be as you called it mobile-web devices and I’ll very quickly put together a [handheld] css and that’ll be great, but untill then deleting the current standards is a crime. 70% of my users won’t get my data and as such use of my data through such a proxy is a breach of copyright!

  18. Parable 15 June 2008 at 5:56 pm #

    NB above post is missing document
    “as you don’t put the document tag on the top of it.”

    Having the web mobile is a must and creating simple Html documents with no document at the top will

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