Why They'll Kill Wap

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 April 2001

Okay, I’ll let you in on a secret. There’s currently a way to access an Internet as fast, convenient, and uncluttered as it was in the old days before banner ads, animated gifs, and cookie attacks. It’s the streamlined, text-only world of WAP – a scaled-down World Wide Web meant to be accessed only by cellular phones and pda’s.

But, thanks to a few security oversights, if you know the unpublished url’s for these sites you can get to them through any regular web browser. You will never be the same. Check out The New York Times on the web, sans advertisements and graphics, by visiting Have you done it yet? If you can’t right now, trust me: this is the way the Web looked back in 1994, before the ill-fated scheme of advertisers to turn the Internet into a direct marketing platform had even been conceived.

It’s the New York Times, free of confusing layouts, time-consuming graphics downloads and senseless navigation. On this version of the site, intended for low-bandwidth cell phones, each article is listed by title, followed by a one-sentence description. The title is underlined, which means it is linked to the text of the article. Clicking on the title brings you to a new page, containing the article itself – again, with no graphics, advertisements, or other useless distractions.

I know this description sounds a bit sarcastic, but that’s only because this very obvious and logical method of creating a web site has all but disappeared from today’s World Wide Web. WAP sites like this one (or CNN’s at cnnfn.cnn.com/services/fntogo/avantgo/channel.html, and The Wall Street Journal’s at public.wsj.com/news/avantgo/wsj.html) are easier, faster, more organic to the medium, and easier for publisher and reader alike.

Just look at how fast these pages load, even on a regular old modem! Experiment with how effortlessly you can move from article to article, cut and copy text, email links to friends, or use the data in any way you like. No frames, no JavaScript, no special applets to download. No tracing your pathway, no spy programs nested onto your hard drive, no compliance-inducing interface designed to pull your finger towards the ‘buy’ button.

Experience this lightning-fast, user-friendly world for yourself. Then you’ll understand what it is people like me have been complaining about for the past five years. This simple, open and accessible information architecture is the closest you can get today to the Internet that those of us who were online in the early 90’s keep talking about. Now you know why we whine so much. It’s not that we’re nostalgic for the innocence of our interactive youths. We merely have a very clear recollection of how much better early Web interfaces served the needs of students, researchers, and anyone looking for some information.

Sure, there’s a value to visual interfaces, streaming media, and interactive bells and whistles. But they should be used on sites dedicated to art, gaming, or technology. For text retrieval and speedy navigation, nothing beats simplicity.

Enjoy these sites while you can. Even if they remain accessible to our web browsers, they won’t be around in this form for long.

The “wireless revolution” is pumping new air into the speculative investment bubble deflated by the dot.com crash. Venture capitalists, who only last year were touting their e-commerce incubators, have now foresworn their allegiance to the Internet and are staking their entire claims on the wireless space.

Their new business plans (as well as their inevitable exit strategies) will prove as fruitless as their last ones – but not before they’ve cluttered up and compromised the entire wireless space with new advertising schemes, methods of privacy invasion, and bandwidth-hogging graphics. Just you wait. When enough of us have purchased color-capable cellular phones (there are already a couple on the market) and high-speed wireless Palm devices, functions we take for granted today like sms messaging or text-only browsing will be frustratingly complex and opaque.

We all understand that the services we enjoy have to get paid for, somehow. But online marketing didn’t end up paying for anything. As a means of funding web content, advertising has failed. It worked on television and radio, because these are passive media experiences. Sponsorship makes sense there, but not in an interactive mediaspace where ads only get in the way of whatever it is the user is attempting to do.

We would not tolerate the inconvenience of listening to advertisements whenever we picked up the telephone. We pay for our dial tones. Likewise, we pay for access to the Internet and wireless content, and should not surrender ease of use to the needs of marketers or NASDAQ investors.

And to all you wireless businesspeople out there: before you make the same mistake again, take a good look at the web sites I’ve listed up above. Please consider for a moment whether you might want to figure out ways to make money by offering people useful, hassle-free services, rather than just taking them away.