WAP will dominate and complicate the world of e-commerce

E-commerce will not mature until it becomes truly mobile — available anywhere, amenable to our every whim and so easy to access that we barely think twice about it. And in fact, e-commerce is becoming increasingly portable, as convenient as the wireless terminals we stash in our briefcases, install in our automobile dashboards and embed in all manner of everyday appliances.

As e-commerce infrastructures evolve to serve a dizzying range of wireless clients, the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) will soon become one of the most important suites of technical standards in the new economy. WAP may even come to dominate e-commerce infrastructures as more of us acquire wireless data terminals and carry them everywhere.

WAP 1.1 has achieved considerable support among wireless handset vendors, wireless infrastructure vendors and wireless application software providers, most notably through widespread implementation of WAP’s XML-based Wireless Markup Language (WML).

But no one expects WAP to render traditional “wireline” Web clients obsolete, and e-commerce operations will probably need to deploy dual, parallel, partially redundant access architectures for wireless and wireline clients, respectively. So unfortunately, WAP may add yet another layer of technical and management complexity into e-commerce infrastructures.

WAP-compliant clients will interface with today’s Web-based application infrastructure through WAP proxy gateways at the ISP or enterprise level. Alternately, enterprises may choose to deploy dual interfaces — HTTP/HTML and WAP/WML — at their application and Web servers.

All of which should cause us to question the need for WAP in the first place. Why should wireless clients merit a totally separate suite of access protocols, markup conventions and other infrastructure components?

The primary rationale for WAP is that it is necessary to support reliable client/server communications in wireless network environments that suffer from fundamental resource constraints. For one thing, wireless clients generally lack the display, input, processing, memory and storage resources of desktop and notebook computers.

Wireless clients also usually communicate with wireline, server-based applications over bandwidth-poor, unreliable and coverage-limited radio-frequency channels. And wireless clients suffer from the same limitation as any portable appliance — limited battery power, requiring a periodic rendezvous with a recharger tethered to the wired world.

Wireless clients are the thinnest clients of all in terms of network and hardware capacity available to application developers. Wireless data applications require miniaturization on many hardware and software levels: graphical user interfaces, browsers, applications, portals, smart cards, digital certificates and the like.

WAP’s developers (www.wapforum.org) have addressed these special needs through new protocols at the application, presentation, session and transport layers, as well as security specifications, a markup syntax and a scripting language that parallel equivalent Web standards.

For the next several years, WAP will play a critical role in helping wireless users connect efficiently and seamlessly to the Web, finessing the technical constraints that prevent mobile users from enjoying the full quality of service (QoS) they expect from wireline clients. But WAP assumes today’s client-side and access-link resource constraints will endure and that the wireless and wireline access models will never overlap for any portable Web client.

This assumption flies in the face of industry trends. Wireless network bandwidth, reliability and coverage will improve as carriers implement third-generation (3G) airlink protocols at the physical through network layers, optimize cell-site configurations and tweak QoS parameters. Wireless handset technology will incorporate ever more miniaturized chipsets, conserving battery power more efficiently and narrowing the performance gap vis-a-vis more full-featured computers. Furthermore, users will increasingly use portable terminals on the road and for docking when they return to the office or home.

WAP may begin to decline in importance by the end of this decade, when we’ll have access to fat 3G wireless pipes and cheap but powerful handsets. At that point, we may decide that we’ve outgrown WAP and its wimped-down Web-access model. WAP may prove to have been merely a transitional protocol, a stopgap until wireless clients had the horsepower to run HTTP and other mainstream Web protocols.

Or maybe not. Smart cards and other resource-constrained wireless clients will almost certainly drive mobile commerce in the future. WAP will allow these lightweight devices to participate effectively in e-market places. After all, who wants to whip a fat client out of their hip pocket the next time they go shopping?