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A Technology in Search of a Metaphor

A Technology in Search of a Metaphor

I'm a WAP user for one simple reason: it allows me to communicate with my girlfriend by e-mail whenever I want. Currently she is studying in Delft, in the Netherlands, while I live and work in Trondheim, Norway. And I miss her.

How does this tiny personal story relate to WAP? Well, it provides us with lesson number one for a developer of any technology: never underestimate your customers' personal feelings. You may develop the world's best system for delivering financial information, sending messages, presenting pictures, and so on, but nobody will use the system if they don't feel for it.

Microwave ovens, for example, were originally developed for heating up food in submarines. SMS was probably developed with the business executive in mind. Excellent systems for those original purposes, but so what? The real market lay elsewhere, where the need for that technology was felt.

There's also a second lesson to be learned from my personal experience. Originally, I wanted the e-mail facility only and that brings us to lesson number two: all "killer applications" give users significant control over content and make it possible for them to use the technology to express themselves.

E-mail is a killer app, messenger services are killer apps, Internet and Web hosting are killer apps. The phone itself is a killer app. So never, never, never underestimate your customers' wishes to express themselves.

Now, "personalization" is a current buzzword, but it's not personalization we're talking about here. Most users don't want a personalized news service (heck, do they think they know better than me what I want?); what they want is to be able to shout back at the editor of the news service (hey, I have something to express!).

Personalization is fine as long as it's just a step toward giving users the possibility to express themselves through the technology. Nokia got it right when they made it possible for the user to personalize ringtones, logos, and so on. That was a start. Then it became possible to make your own logos, ringtones, and so on. The market? Between $10-20 million each year in little Norway alone.

Open Source Is the Answer
So there I was with a WAP-enabled mobile phone. It had a RAM capacity 24 times that of my first personal computer, and a processing power perhaps 10 times as great. And I had "online facilities" (e.g., WAP) as well. But it just didn't feel as if I was truly holding all that power in my hand. What I was holding was the manufacturer's idea of how I should use the phone, and of how I should personalize it.

I started dreaming of bygone days, of PEEKs and POKEs in BASIC, of the wonderful attempts at doing "hacker things" in my youth. In contrast, here I was, supposedly grown up, and all I was being "allowed" to do was to surf on those WAP pages. So I turned from being a moderate supporter of open source to being a staunch one. The reason is simple: a technology, in its infancy, needs as many developers on board as you can muster. And you should regard all your customers as potential developers and contributors to standards.

WAP, and the mobile phone industry in general, seems to me to be falling into "the Apple trap." There was this wonderful product (the Macintosh in Apple's case) and yet nobody was allowed to touch it. In contrast, IBM, with the PC, opened up access, and things started rolling.

My estimate is that perhaps 3-5% of the buyers of a new technology will be willing to fiddle with it, and from among that group some will move from mere fiddling to the process of developing the product further - in some cases, much further, since such fiddlers tend to know exactly what they want. A similar issue arises when it comes to standards.

Standard reviews should be as open a process as possible. You discuss, quarrel, flame each other, but the process is open and strictly based on merit and "technical karma points," not on affiliations per se. Later on, when the standard becomes mature, it becomes possible to go for the more settled evolutionary approach. By then you know who the "wizards" of that technology are. Each wizard may very well turn out to be a user, a hacker, an academic, or a company CEO. You just don't know at the outset, not when you're dealing with an immature technology.

Metaphors Gone Wacky!
Well, I didn't have access to the innermost sanctum of my mobile phone, but at least I could "surf" a bit with WAP. But the experience was precisely as described by the person who said it was "like surfing on the checkout receipts from a grocery store." And then it simply struck me that the metaphors used for selling, and perhaps even developing, WAP are just plainly, mindbogglingly wrong. So, let's take a trip down metaphor lane.

First, you "surf" the Internet. You have an "ocean" of information. The new information added constantly creates "waves," you surf on the waves, you skip on the peaks of some waves, you dive into the ocean of information. Sometimes you need navigational help (search engines). Sometimes you drown in information and want some air ("filtering"). In short, the surfing metaphor isn't perhaps too bad in the case of the Internet.

In contrast, tell an ordinary customer that WAP is "like the Internet on your mobile phone" and that customer is going to feel cheated. Very cheated. The metaphor just doesn't apply. A mobile phone (or a PDA for that matter) has a small display. There's not much out there, and what is isn't connected as tightly (through links) as it is when it comes to the Internet. There's no ocean of information and no huge waves. What WAP is delivering is "sound bites." Small chirps of information scattered around in odd places.

So this is another thing to think about: get the metaphor right and you can start being serious about what you can and cannot do with the technology, and in what direction the technology needs to evolve.

It's my impression that WAP developments have just been patently off track. WAP has fallen into the "me too" trap. WAP wants to be the Internet, but it can never be, will not be, should not be. Why use WAP when you already have the Internet, and if WAP is just a poor cousin? What's needed is to make WAP as compatible with Internet standards as possible.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has given WAP a lot to pick from here. XHTML exists in a basic version (and three cheers for basing WAP 2.0 on that standard, though I sometimes find myself grumbling at some choices in the WAP standard as well). There are proposed standards for the encoding of pictures (PNG). There's a standard for scalable vector graphics (SVG), with proposals for a "light" version. Why compatibility? Not in order to get "Internet on your mobile," but to use existing tools, to be able to use the skills of the large number of developers who are already familiar with these tools and standards, to provide a clear migration path for content (and developers!) from the Internet to WAP, and to give a clear direction for the "scaling up" of WAP.

'Surfing the Ocean' vs 'A Walk in the Woods'
What are the possible metaphors for WAP? I'm not sure, but consider the difference between surfing and taking a walk in the woods. Surfing requires that your senses are concentrated on that task. When you walk in the woods you listen to accidental birdsong. Or, using the handsfree equipment on your mobile phone, you continue walking while calling your friends. You're still mobile.

Another analogy: Internet pages are like whole-page adverts, WAP pages are like a single column in the classifieds. By keeping such analogies and metaphors in the back of our mind, we can have a better idea as to how WAP might evolve.

Things to Do When Walking
While I don't want to stare at a small screen when I'm mobile (walking, driving), sound output on the other hand works fine for me, so let's look at some applications that WAP could have if sound was embedded. There could be karaoke on your mobile (why not?). I could have my e-mail messages read out loud to me while I walk to the bus (SMS-to-voice converters exist already).

Add positioning, and I could be given helpful hints about where to go when I'm driving my car. A WAP page designer could put in a "sound bite" explaining more thoroughly what to expect if I were to follow a particular link - in short, a larger set of applications, none of which interferes with mobility (I can still walk and drive...), better navigational clues that reduce the disability of having a small screen.

Or, to put it in more technical words: sound embedded in WAP could increase accessibility immediately and reduce the disabling feeling that a small screen gives rise to, while making it possible to develop new applications that don't interfere with mobility. Most WAP devices have a "sound media type" already, so the overhead shouldn't be too high.

It's really a stopgap measure till WAP finds its own metaphor and starts evolving along that path. However, it's an urgently needed stopgap measure that should be possible to implement quickly. In the meantime, I'll go on using WAP for e-mails, for sometimes checking if my girlfriend's plane is late...and that's about it. At the moment, I don't feel for using WAP for more than that. But I do care intensely about WAP, honestly I do.

More Stories By Lars H. Vik

Lars H. Vik works for the Trust for Industrial and Technological Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway.

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