The end of WML?

I read the other today that the BBC has now dropped WML from its mobile website.  For such a significant content provider as the BBC to drop this format must signal the end for this original, now rather quaint, format for the mobile internet.

WML stands for Wireless Markup Language and was created by the WAP Forum in the late 1990′s as a simpler language to HTML, more suitable for low powered mobile devices.  Its capabilities were more limited, supporting mainly text-based pages with a small number of graphical items.  Part of its parentage was Unwired Planet (later phone.com, and still later Openwave) who had created their own HDML, in some ways more feature rich than WML (it allowed for pre-programmed icons to be displayed on the handset, very efficient in code size).  But ultimately HDML was doomed as it was proprietary, and some major manufacturers (guess who) refused to license it.

Motorola Timeport

I led the team who put together the first commercial WAP service in the UK, a service we launched in January 2000.  Eleven years later that particular technology is now all but dead, but that still counts as a pretty good run when you look at the speed of technological change over that time.  Those early handsets were puny by comparison with today’s stunning devices.  All of them had monochrome screens, some could not support images at all, they used circuit switched dial-up data access that took several seconds to initiate a call, at a blisteringly fast data rate of 9600 baud maximum. And that dial-up connection meant you were charged for as long as you had the connection running, regardless of the amount of data sent and received.

Nokia 7110

Nokia came out with what was to become the definitive WAP phone of the time, the 7110.  The sliding front (on a spring) was flashy although I was never too sure about the durability of the microphone contacts.  The phone had a habit of crashing a lot at a time when phones didn’t do that very often.  I well remember one meeting with a content provider who had clearly become quite adept at turning the phone over, removing and replacing the battery, putting the cover back on and turning the phone back on whilst talking fluidly as if nothing had happened (and English was not his native tongue either).

The key to success then (as now) was content – how much and how good.  It was a struggle at first.  The best people to build content sites in WML were the content owners themselves who were running normal websites.  But the incentive for them to spend more money creating a mobile version of their content in WML for a very small user base was not great.  The alternative was either to procure raw content feeds and build content sites from scratch (which we did), or to rip content from a published website and re-purpose the content in WML (which we also did).  Re-purposing content seemed like a good idea at the time, as you could get the content owner to do all the hard work of building the web site and simply extract the bits you needed for the mobile version.  In practice this was not at all easy, and not helped by the fact that the content owners changed their sites too often, and most changes would break the content re-purposing engine.  This was before the days of XML data and separate style sheets, remember.

Ultimately the only way forward was to evangelise the mobile internet amongst a sceptical content community.  The BBC was important.  Its news site was amongst the best even then.  And fortunately its charter meant it was all but compelled to make its content available to new channels as and when they became significant.  And hence the significance of the BBC closing its WML site now.  It means that WML-only handsets now represent a small and dwindling market for its content.  If the BBC says it’s dead, you had better listen.

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