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The Possibilities Are Wireless: Designing and Delivering Information in the Wireless Space.


* Discusses the challenges of designing and delivering information in the wireless world

* Explains the challenges of developing information for a familiar audience adapting to a new medium or for new audiences with new expectations

Wireless communication is poised to become the next big thing since the advent of the Web and may be the next big challenge for technical communicators. Mobile phones, pagers, two-way radios, handheld computers, and smart phones are currently capable of transmitting and receiving textual information wirelessly; they hold the promise of transmitting multimedia communication in the near future.

Wireless devices are becoming commonplace. For example, cell phones already have a high penetration rate in many parts of Europe and are expected to be more widespread in the U.S. There will be more than 530 million wireless subscribers worldwide by 2001. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the number of users could reach 1.3 billion by 2004 (Yu 2000). The Gartner Group estimates that by 2004, 70% of new cell phones and 40% of new personal digital assistants (PDAs) will access the Web and corporate networks using wireless technology ("Bluetooth essential to 'Supranet'" 2000). As wireless technologies and wireless delivery of information and services gain more usage among business users and consumers, technical communicators will become more involved in the development and delivery of those information products as well.

New technologies on the horizon will bring many key ingredients of ubiquitous computing together--mobility, wireless access, easy physical connection of devices, and broadband capacity. Devices such as PDAs and cell phones are fast becoming standard officeware and even fashion accessories, and provide users mobile computing capabilities. The Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) makes wireless access to the Web possible. Bluetooth (named after Harald Bluetooth, a fierce Viking king in 10th century Denmark) is a low-power radio link technology that connects handheld devices, PCs, laptops, and other devices such as digital cameras, without cables, thus eliminating the need to buy and carry proprietary cabling ("Bluetooth FAQ" 2000). The third generation of telecommunication technology, or 3G, will bring high bandwidth to mobile communication with transmission speeds reaching 384 Kbps ("Leading wireless vendors form 3G alliance" 1999).

The many different roles that wireless communication devices can play will present new communication challenges, as the presentation and delivery medium shifts from a computer screen to that of a handheld unit. Furthermore, because such wireless communication devices as cell phones and handheld computers serve varying functions, they will play a different role in information exchange from traditional desktop and laptop computers. As developers of information, we also need to be cognizant of the fact that wireless devices are not limited to PDAs and cell phones; they may also be found inside automobiles and public buses. Wireless services may not only be packaged as computer-related services but may also be bundled with entertainment content such as cable television.

In this article, I discuss the challenges associated with designing and delivering information in the wireless world. Wireless communication is a new medium. Wireless devices present a new interface to many users who will interact with them in different ways from traditional desktop and laptop users, As such, technical communicators are confronted with the challenge of developing information for a familiar audience adapting to the new medium or entirely new audiences with new expectations about the quality of information as well as its design and delivery. Furthermore, new technologies come with new programming languages and new technical lingo to master.

The central communication problem for practitioners of technical communication is to adapt or reinvent a unique user experience in wireless space. Such a problem demands that practitioners understand how, when, where, and why wireless users access information.

The demand for wireless communication services implies a demand for immediate transfer of timely and relevant information. If the speed of accessing Web sites has presented challenges for Web designers, then the speed of accessing wireless information will be a more daunting task because of existing bandwidth limitations. In this article, I explore

* The tools and technology of wireless communication: the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), Wireless Markup Language (WML), and WAP graphics

* The challenges of wireless communication and techniques to overcome them

* Methods for designing information for the wireless world

Because the technology changes rapidly, I will not provide an in-depth discussion of technical details, I use the emerging Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) to frame the technical discussion. Wireless communication is here to stay, but the future of WAP will ultimately be decided by the market. Therefore, I do not intend this article to be a tutorial.

Because the wireless exchange of information makes possible the exchange of business and consumer services, the possibilities of wireless may have profound implications for socio-economic transformations as such services become available; such transformations will always begin with the exchange of information. Using knowledge that we have gained in the last few years from the Web, I explore the practical dimensions as well as the theoretical possibilities of designing and delivering information across wireless space.


Wireless communication is enabled by a wide spectrum of technologies: radio frequency (RF), infrared technology, and cellular technology, to name a few. This article focuses on wireless Internet. Furthermore, I use wireless to refer to mobile devices and mobile communication. Mobile devices are "handheld and small enough to put in your pocket to become ubiquitous" and are used "with one hand or no hands" (Hjelm 2000, p. 3). Laptops, therefore, are not mobile in this sense, even if they have a wireless connection to a network.

The Wireless Application Protocol

To discuss modeling and developing information for the wireless world, we must gain a basic understanding of the technology and the tools. This section provides an overview of key wireless technologies concepts and explains basic terms such as WML and WMLScript.

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) is a communications protocol for hardware and software that transmit information wirelessly; it is a standardized way that a mobile phone communicates with a server installed in the mobile phone network. WAP has gained a great deal of attention because it is a standardized way of linking the Internet to mobile phones, thereby linking two of the fastest growing industries anywhere. Further, the protocol has support from major telecommunication giants such as Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola, as well as the 200 member-companies of the WAP Forum, the wireless industry group. WAP has been touted as a solution for mobile information services because of its increasing popularity and its promise.

Advantages of WAP

Like HTML or Java, the single greatest advantage of WAP is its interoperability. WAP also derives strength from its alignment with existing technological standards.

Device independence As Java holds the promise of being platform independent, WAP is device independent and can be used on PDAs, smart phones, pagers, or other wireless devices.

Air interface independence WAP can work with any number of disparate wireless networks ("The WAP FAQ" 2000). Although there are many bearers of wireless communication on the market today, WAP is designed to work with standards such as the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM). Because these wireless communication standards are incompatible, a mobile phone on the CDMA network may not work with one on the GSM network. Nonetheless, WAP is independent of the bearer.

Compatibility with and extension of existing Web technologies The design and architecture of WAP are based, to the extent possible, on existing standards and technologies, in particular, Internet and Web technologies. The WAP Forum strategically chose to align its technology with the Internet and the Web. WAP takes advantage of existing Internet technologies such as Internet Protocol (IP), HTML, XML (Extensible Markup Language), HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), scripting languages, and SSL (Secure Socket Layer) encryption technology. Using the HTTP 1.1 protocol, a WAP gateway can communicate with other Internet gateways. Micro browsers on wireless devices also use URLs to request information and services from the server, just as Web browsers do.

Disadvantages of WAP

As an emerging technology, WAP also has many disadvantages.

Difficulty of configuration There are 20 or so different parameters that must be configured for WAP phones to receive WAP services. This could present a challenge for novice users who are unfamiliar with the technology.

Lack of widespread penetration At present, mobile phones that support WAP are not common, and widespread penetration of WAP handsets will take some time.

Ongoing evolution of the standard Many elements of WAP such as push technology (pushing information to mobile devices) and wireless telephony are not yet standardized.

Competing standards Other protocols such as Mobile Station Application Execution Environment (MeEx) and SIM Application Toolkit are attempting to supercede WAP. There is also the popular I-mode, a proprietary technology currently available only in Japan (Batista 2000).

Expense As interactive features and a selection of content and services become available for WAP devices, users are likely to be online for extended periods and can incur expensive charges. A recent study has shown that 19% of the surveyed users indicate that they do not access wireless more because of the cost ("WAP/mobile device survey" 2000).

WML and WMLScript

WAP uses a special markup language, the Wireless Markup Language (WML), to display information. WML is a tag-based document language specified as an XML document type. (XML itself is a restricted set of the Standard General Markup Language, or SGML.) WML is to a micro browser on a WAP-compliant device what HTML is to a Web browser.

WML pages are called decks. Each deck comprises one or more cards.

Cards specify one or more units of user interaction (e.g., a choice menu, a screen of text or a text entry field). Logically, a user navigates through a series of WML cards, reviews the contents of each, enters requested information, makes choices and moves on to another card.

Cards are grouped together into decks. A WML deck is similar to an HTML page, in that it is identified by a URL and is the unit of content transmission. (WAP Forum 1999b, p. 5)

Decks begin and end with the [less than]wm1[greater than][less than]/wm1[greater than] tags, whereas cards begin and end with the [less than]card[greater than][less than]/card[greater than] tags. WML decks are divided into a set of well-defined units of user interactions. One unit of interaction is called a card (WAP White Paper 1999).

Because WML is specified as an XML document type, technical communicators will find that WML is a stricter markup language than HTML. The following HTML page provides a very simple yet powerful example:

[less than]H1[greater than]Welcome!

This simple HTML page, while not correctly formatted, will display properly in a Web browser. The [less than]H1[greater than] tag really should be closed with an end tag, [less than]/H1[greater than]. There should also be tags such as [less than]HTML[greater than], [less than]HEAD[greater than], [less than]BODY[greater than], and so forth.

In WML, however, all tags must be closed. WML tags must be properly formed or they will not be correctly interpreted by the WAP gateway, which converts WML codes to a highly compressed format before the code is sent to the micro browser.

To turn the above HTML page into WML, you would write:

[less than]?xm1 version="1.0"?[greater than]

[less than]!DOCTYPE wm1 PUBLIC "-//WAPFORUM//DTD WML 1.1//EN" ""[greater than]

[less than]wm1[greater than]

[less than]card id="mycard" title="My first card"[greater than]

[less than]p[greater than]Welcome![less than]/p[greater than]

[less than]/card[greater than]

[less than]/wml[greater than]

The most important line is the header line. The micro browser must first receive the character [less than] with the line [less than]?xml version="1.0"?[greater than]. Any other character (even a space or a carriage return) will break the card.

Because WML is specified as an XML document type, technical communicators can use any existing XML authoring or HTML authoring tool to develop WML applications. In fact, a simple text editor is all one needs to write WML codes.

And because WAP uses the standard HTTP 1.1. protocol to communicate between Web servers and WAP gateways, developers can use shrink-wrapped Web application servers to deploy their WML applications.

To add interactivity to WAP decks, we turn to WMLScript. WMLScript is based on ECMAScript. (ECMA is an international, Europe-based industry association dedicated to the standardization of information and communication systems.) JavaScript, on the other hand, is one of the originating technologies of ECMAScript. Thus, WMLScript can be considered an extended subset of JavaScript. WMLScript is similar to JavaScript but much more limited in its capabilities. Having a background in JavaScript would thus be helpful to learning WMLScript. Note that unlike their Web counterparts HTML and JavaScript, WML and WMLScript do not assume that a standard QWERTY keyboard is available for user input.

WAP extends the investment in Web servers, Web development tools, Web developers and designers, and Web applications. As such, technical communicators who have been involved in Web development already have a good foundation in several important WAP technologies and are well positioned to become adept in creating WAP code.

WAP graphics

WAP supports common HTTP image formats such as .png. In addition, WAP supports a new, optimized bitmap format, the Wireless BitMaP (WBMP). This new format will provide "support for multiple pixels depths, support for colourspace tables, small encoding, very low CPU and RAM decoding and presentation demands and allowance" (WAP Forum 1999a, p. 14). Images are limited to 150 X 150 pixels and cannot exceed 1,461 bytes ("The wireless FAQ" 2000). Most common graphics packages now have plug-ins that convert BMP to WBMP.

Table 1 summarizes the basic concepts and terminology in wireless communication and their counterparts in Web development.


Modeling information for the wireless world may require a fundamental paradigmatic shift about how we perceive the Internet and the wireless framework. Most people view wireless technology as just another way to access the Internet. "Our expectations about the Internet are deeply tied to assumptions about what a computer is" (Werbach 2000). However, wireless devices bring convenience and portability to mobile users, making truly ubiquitous computing possible. Mobility is not simply a new feature or an extension of the Internet but represents a new computing para digm; as one analyst observes, "mobile computing devices are the true realization of personal computing because their native environment is the person" (Werbach 2000)

A good example is Southwest Mutual (a pseudonym), an insurance company in the southwestern U.S. Before the widespread deployment of corporate intranets in 1996, Southwest Mutual used to mail volumes of insurance policy manuals to its field agents. Once its intranet was established, the company published and distributed its policy manuals online; field agents then downloaded the manuals onto their laptops. Currently, Southwest Mutual is undertaking a global wireless data initiative to deliver modules of its policy manuals wirelessly to agents' PDAs. Using their wireless PDAs, field agents will not only be able to download and carry policy manuals in their PDAs, but they will also be able to process insurance applications and claims wirelessly. These wireless PDAs offer a personal computing platform to every agent.

Modeling information for wireless communication

The most striking feature of information development using WAP is the metaphor of a deck and a card. Today's computer users are mostly familiar with the desktop metaphor. Computer documents, like their paper counterparts, have pages. A document is a loose holder of pages. Web documents, for example, may consist of one or multiple pages. The relationship of cards to a deck is similar to that of pages to a document. Modeling information in WAP requires information architects to become comfortable with this new metaphor.

Playing cards carry only very limited information; a given card contains information about its suit and its value (for example, queen of spades or a king of hearts). A WML card, similarly, has room for only limited information. Information architects must first chunk information into much smaller pieces than they are accustomed to doing for Web pages; yet they must take great care to ensure information flow. The motion of playing cards is fairly choppy, and so is browsing WML cards--a potential problem for an information architect tasked with developing a lengthy technical procedure for viewing on a wireless device.

Soon, there will be a rush to convert existing Web sites to WAP sites. Software programs are available to convert content automatically. The quality of the converted output, however, is questionable, and the content of HTML may also be compromised during the conversion process ("The WAP FAQ" 2000). Remember that HTML pages are formatted for desktop and laptop displays, whereas WML decks are designed for much smaller screens.

The transition from the Web to wireless communication is likely to follow the transition from the print paradigm to the Web paradigm during the Web's early days. Much early Web content was converted from existing print documents. Content designed in the Web's native environment was often brochureware. HTML content conversion from word processing and desktop publishing software did not always generate clean HTML code or layout that resembled the original.

Wireless communication development will encounter similar challenges at first. For companies, there will be pressure from end users to deliver information via wireless channels. For communicators involved in wireless communication design and delivery, the pressure will come from management. As technical communicators begin designing content in native wireless environments, they may find that their imagination for design and delivery has outpaced the technology--"the designer's reach has exceeded the engineers' grasp" (Reid 2000).

The challenges of wireless communication

The wireless medium presents many unique challenges for communication professionals. To meet these challenges, the technical communicator must understand how the user interacts with wireless devices. I will explore the following user challenges that technical communicators need to be aware of:

* Technical challenges

* Access challenges

* Social and market challenges

* Usability challenges

Technical challenges Wireless devices have limited computing power. They have limited memory (RAM and ROM) and limited CPU power. The batteries of wireless devices such as mobile phones offer limited call time; adding a screen display to handle wireless Internet activities will further drain battery life. While newer wireless products will undoubtedly offer more memory and CPU power, and enjoy a longer battery life, their overall computing performance will not match that of desktop or laptop computers in the near future. These technical constraints play a role in how and where users will use the devices, and those factors will in turn dictate what information and services they will access.

Wireless devices are small and have limited real estate for user interfaces. Until foldable or rollable displays are invented, the size of the displays will be small. Their resolution will be low, and many displays are still monochrome. The backlit display of wireless devices is intended to provide brief illumination similar to that produced by striking a match; it is not suitable for prolonged viewing in poor lighting environments. In the wireless world, "designers are forced to design the information, not a graphic presentation" (Hjelm 2000, p. 39).

Simple user interfaces also involve inconvenient input devices such as undersized keyboards or no keyboards at all, and telephone keypads. The devices may rely on alternative input techniques such as voice recognition technology or touch screen input. The limited input devices may constrain user interaction to a degree. For example, car drivers obviously are not able to access the Internet by looking at and touching a screen. For drivers to navigate a touch-screen menu would be considerably more dangerous than fiddling with the radio dial. Drivers must rely on audio navigation mechanisms to access the Internet.

Technical communicators will probably have to design a relatively flat information structure in which users do not have to navigate more than two or three layers. Because user input is considerably more difficult on a wireless device than on a desktop computer, data entry should be kept to a minimum. To enter the name "Tom" on a WAP site using a cell phone keypad, a user would have to press "8" once and "6" three times, followed by "6" once more, which is "a difficult, frustrating, and error-prone operation" (Arehart, Wugofsi, and Mee 2000, p. 207). Information architects have to develop other meaningful methods for user interaction.

As technical communicators, we are accustomed to diagramming information using flowcharts or hierarchical charts. These techniques are useful for text and graphics because they illustrate the relationship of one page of text to another page or to a graphic. But audio content is more fluid than text and graphics, and is therefore more difficult to model. Although a sound byte as an audio file can be treated as a single object, the relationships among pieces of information within that sound byte are still difficult to model.

The communication problem encountered here is similar to that posed by the long list of menu options that callers frequently encounter when they call customer service or technical support. Unlike textual or graphical menus that present all options simultaneously, audio menus present options one at a time. Many major airlines have already improved on the user interface level of their automated systems to allow voice navigation instead of pushing buttons on the telephone keypad. Instead of developing text menus to be read or graphic menus to be viewed on the screen, technical communicators may be writing scripts for audio menus for wireless communication.

Access challenges Immediate access to services and information will remain a key challenge. Users want to access information and services wirelessly without staring at an hourglass; they prefer today's PDAs that power on immediately without a long bootup sequence. No user would want to wait 30 seconds for each new screen (Reid 2000). Over a 56K modem on a desktop or laptop computer today, it may take 45 to 60 seconds from the time a user clicks on the sign-on button to the time the browser logs on to the Internet. This may be too long for wireless users who are on the go and need immediate access to information and services. Currently, the mobile network has a transmission capacity of 14.4 kilobits per second in the U.S. (Hjelm 2000, p. 3); in Europe, users can expect speed of 9,600 bits per second (Arehart, Wugofsi, and Mee 2000, p. 199). One study has shown that 26% of users do not access the wireless Web more often because it is too slow ("WAP/ mobile device survey" 2000).

Further, technical issues add a physical barrier to accessing information. Wireless networks have low bandwidth, high latency, and unpredictable availability and stability. Wireless networks cannot currently carry as much traffic as wired networks. Weather and distance considerations also have significant effects on wireless traffic. And as cell phone users know, wireless traffic may be blocked by physical barriers such as tunnels, elevators, and underground train stations.

Because of wireless devices' limited computing power and wireless networks' low bandwidth, bandwidth-intensive elements such as graphics must be kept to a minimum. While it is possible to spice up your WAP content with graphics, the challenge is to do so with only 1-bit images (black and white). Keep in mind WAP's graphics restrictions on memory and pixel size. The screen of the Nokia 7110 cell phone is 96 X 65 pixels (width X height). So even placing the maximum graphic of 150 X 150 pixels allowed by WAP would exceed the screen size.

Another problem is that the pixels on the displays of some wireless devices may not have a one-to-one ratio. For example, the height of the Nokia 7110 screen is approximately 1.25 times greater than its width. A square, therefore, would look like a rectangle 1.25 times taller than it is wide ("The wireless FAQ" 2000). It is possible to compensate for this by remapping the image so that the shapes look like what they are supposed to look like. However, this approach is not recommended because users seldom have the same model wireless device.

Social and market challenges Wireless users have different needs, uses, and desires from desktop or even laptop users. Essentially, the wireless communication market is different from that of traditional desktops and laptops. Whereas desktop and laptop computers are used for complex activities--from communication to publishing, word processing to data processing--wireless devices are used for simpler tasks. PDAs, for example, are used to keep track of calendars, address books, and to-do lists; mobile phones are used for voice communication; and pagers are used to receive or send short alphanumeric messages. While it may be possible to write one's resume on a PDA, it is not as practical and certainly not as convenient as using a desktop machine. A user may enter expenses incurred on the road with a wireless device but is unlikely to reconcile her checking account or file her tax returns using her mobile phone. The advantage that all wireless devices have is that they are compact and lightweight, and thus highl y portable. When designing and developing information products and services for wireless devices, the unique characteristics of these devices must be kept in mind. Wireless users are looking for snippets of content and miniature applications. And this content must be highly attractive to users, especially now when users are being billed by the second.

The wireless exchange of information makes possible new business and consumer services. Information architects need to be cognizant of the fact that wireless data exchange is not just about the transmission of stock quotes, sport scores, and weather forecasts, but also about the specific services they provide that satisfy market needs. While effective communication has always been concerned with the timeliness of the information, wireless communication heightens the need for up-to-date information as users will undoubtedly demand real-time feeds. Further, the mobility of wireless devices adds another dimension to wireless communication. A user will want information that is relevant not only to a specific time but also to a specific location.

For example, while in the business district of a large city, a user may want to know where the closest post office is located. Using Global Positioning System (GPS), the wireless device can help identify the user's precise location and then map his or her position relative to the closest post office. Another service may allow a user to upload his typical grocery list to his favorite grocery store right before he leaves work. When he arrives at the grocery store, his groceries will be there waiting for him, already bagged and paid for.

Imagine another scenario. You are a technical communicator designing a product specification sheet to be distributed at a conference as attendees walk by your company's booth. Instead of distributing a glossy product sheet, it is now possible to design a "wireless spec sheet." As a conference attendee approaches your company's booth, the GPS helps pinpoint her location and the computer server at your company's headquarters 1,000 miles away beams the product information and a promotional offer to her cell phone. She can then check out the product at the booth.

Location specificity raises the important social challenge of privacy--one that has broad social and economic ramifications and will be rigorously debated among industry professionals and legislators alike. The Internet has already provoked concerns about increasing loss of personal privacy and public safety in general. Wireless communication will raise the ante even more.

The issue of privacy and security will have a dramatic impact on both consumers and business users alike. For example, physicians will be recording diagnoses on their PDAS, which are linked to hospitals' patient records databases. Patients may request their medical records be transmitted to their smart phones and carry their own medical history records. Purchases of stocks and retail goods, and bank transactions on wireless devices will open many more access points to sensitive financial information of government institutions, businesses, and individuals.

Whereas programmers and database developers have to be concerned with application security, technical communicators must also be concerned with the security of wireless communication. For communicators, security is not a matter of encryption but of classifying data as secure. A possible recourse is to label WML cards as confidential or sensitive using XML tags.

U.S. government regulations currently require wireless carriers to pinpoint a wireless user's location within 400 feet in cases of emergency. While such pinpointing makes locating a user easy in the event of an emergency, it also raises security concerns and possibilities for commercial exploitation. Further, the wireless transmission of government, business, and personal data may open the door to intruders. The debate will not be dissimilar to that waged over the security of the Internet. Information architects must continue to take the same precautions about putting information out on wireless channels and, at the same time, continue to be advocates for wireless communication.

Usability challenges The unique features and limitations of the wireless environment demand that technical communicators re-conceptualize the user experience when they design information for that medium. As Hjelm (2000) puts it, "the sparsity of the mobile environment forces designers to re-think their designs, just as the early Web did" (p. 39). In fact, access information on the wireless Web requires a different metaphor. "Wireless Net access is not surfing, but more of a gentle paddle" (Lake 2000). Indeed, in the wireless world, users do not surf looking for fish; instead, they are looking at the refrigerated section of the supermarket for the fish they already know is there. While ease of use is an important goal for desktop software designs, it is even more critical for wireless applications. Users of wireless devices may be accessing information in demanding environments.

For example, they may be standing in the underground train hanging on to a post with one hand and trying to access information with a wireless device in the other. Or they may be walking down a busy street trying to look up the address of a particular shop. The point is, wireless device users will often find themselves in dynamic environments in which they are engaged in multiple activities and will not--and cannot--focus exclusively on using wireless devices the same way that desktop users will focus on the screen.

Wireless device users may also lack extensive computing experience. Therefore, user interfaces for wireless devices must be significantly simpler and easier to use. Wireless device users also have different content needs--they are more likely to use a task-specific summary rather than a full report of everything. For example, they may not read full e-mail messages but only a list of subject lines and the first 200 characters of the message body. Developing communication products for the wireless world, then, must address the specific usability requirements of wireless users and wireless devices, and information must be shaped with these needs and usage patterns in mind.

When communicators design content for wireless delivery, effective and accurate summaries and abstracts will become essential. When writing an internal report that may not warrant a summary, information designers should take care to write one anyway for the purpose of wireless communication Even a short one- to two-page report might require a brief summary that describes content and highlights key points if it could be transmitted to wireless users.

XML will play a key role in organizing content for wireless delivery. Because WML is inherently an XML document, it lends itself to the use of XML. For example, summaries and abstracts will be set apart using customized tags. The micro browser will then be able to interpret the content and extract the summary portion to present to users.

Another usability issue is WML's interoperability on different WAP devices. Technical communicators will need to pay special attention to what their information products will look like on different WAP device models. Just as different Web browsers interpret HTML differently, different WAP devices will display WML differently as well. Content that can be accessed with a single click on one WAP device may require two or three clicks on another WAP device (Arehart, Wugofsi, and Mee 2000, p. 199). Some WAP devices like the Ericsson R320 will wrap text while others will clip it.

The problem is similar for graphics, which may look fine on one WAP device but will get cropped on the display of another. Unfortunately, there is no easy way around the interoperability issue at present. Technical communicators should observe these best practices:

1. Understand the behavior of various WAP devices and how they interpret WML

2. Make every effort to use the lowest common denominator of WML to maximize chances of consistent presentation across different WAP devices

3. Conduct thorough usability testing

Technical communicators involved in Web design often find themselves asking "What screen size am I designing the page for?" That question is even more crucial when designing information for the wireless world. However, communicators must get used to a much, much smaller world, as shown in Figure 1. Consider the screen size of a few currently popular smart phone models: the Nokia 7110 has a screen resolution of 96 x 65 pixels; the Ericsson R380, 360 X 120 pixels; the Ericsson R320, 101 X 52 pixels ("The wireless FAQ" 2000).


More mobile phones will become Web-enabled smart phones. These smart phones will come with factory-installed micro browsers. More powerful and versatile micro browsers will also be freely available for download. PDAs will also be shipped with micro browsers.

The cost of wireless subscription service will undoubtedly decrease as the market becomes more competitive and the technology matures. Some wireless service providers will even provide service free of charge as several Internet service providers have already done. The model will be similar to that of television in which viewers with a television set can receive free broadcasts, and pay cable channels flourish to provide greater variety in programming tailored to niche markets. Similarly, users with wireless devices will be able to receive free basic wireless service. There will also be a wide array of special content and services available for a fee or for subscription.


Moving into the wireless world will require communication practitioners to learn more than new software tools and new technologies such as WAP, WML, and WMLScript. We must position ourselves to understand the subtle challenges and implications of wireless communication. The advent of wireless communication technologies is making ubiquitous computing possible. This introduces a new paradigm in which technical communicators must re-conceptualize how we structure, design, and present information in the wireless space. Although access challenges will ease to some extent, technological constraints will continue to persist. Put another way, the imagination of designers, technologists, and business users alike will likely outpace the development of the technology that enables the imagination. The socioeconomic challenges and possibilities of wireless communication may change the communication habits of business users and consumers alike, and may also alter the manner in which business is conducted. The changes that these wireless possibilities bring will have a dramatic impact on our role as communicators and reshape the way we approach our discipline and profession.

STEVE CHU is a senior producer at Razorfish with extensive experience in information technology and new media consulting. He graduated from Columbia University and subsequently received his MA in business and technical communication from Iowa State University. He is a member of STC and has held various chapter offices. He is also actively involved in the New York New Media Association. He has presented on Internet-related topics at numerous international and national conferences, including FORUM 2000, the Society for Technical Communication Annual Conference, the Association for Business Communication National Convention, and the Conference on College Composition and Communication. He has previously published articles in Technical communication and Intercom.


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                          WIRELESS COMMUNICATION
                              Web                   Wireless
Protocol                      HTTP/IP               WAP
Markup language               HTML                  WML
Software for access           Web browser           Micro browser
Front-end scripting languages JavaScript, VB Script WMLScript
Graphics format               JPEG, GIF, PNG        WBMP
Unit of page                  Web page              Deck
Content sites                 Web sites             WAP sites
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Technical Communication
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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