Chapter 9 – My First WAP

A major selling point of the enormous Nokia 7190 was that it looked a lot like the phone in the first Matrix film. It wasn’t — and that’s not why I was interested, anyway. For me it was all about that mobile web browser. This was still the spring of 2001, mind you, so the screen was monochrome and too low-res to display anything even remotely resembling a web page on a desktop computer. But come on — this was the world wide web (we still called it that back then) — on your phone!

I gather that it was a very different story in Europe, but for the Americas the 7190 was way ahead of its time. As such, three things kept it from greatness:

First, the web browser… Where desktop browsers used HTML mobile browsers required a different protocol called WAP. Fido did have a WAP portal where you see the weather and read a few news headlines, but it all felt very limited. The 7110 (the 7190’s Eurasian cousin) had much more available content — in fact, a really good book was written about a WAP startup in Finland, by a young entrepreneur who went on to be a founding member of the Leningrad Cowboys. It’s called The Wapit Story, and is available as a free download from this site. Well worth reading if you’re interested.

The second issue had to do with the technology of the day. Broadband Internet was still in its infancy; dial-up modems were still the norm. And mobile data connections worked just like dial-up. It was called circuit switched data; this old school tech had you waiting for your phone to make a manual connection every time you wanted to use the mobile web — and once “online” you couldn’t do anything else with your phone until you were done. Not a great solution if you were expecting a call or text.

The third problem was that there was already a much better solution for non-connected PDAs. It was called AvantGo and was quite ingenious. Since you had to sync your PDA to a computer every so often, and since that computer would most likely have an Internet connection you could use AvantGo to pull content from the web, format it and suck it down to your device during sync. That way you’d have all manner of the day’s news, weather, movie listings, etc. loaded up on your handheld when you walked out the door. Because my Palm OS device had a bigger screen and more memory than my 7190 it was no contest; AvantGo trumped WAP on all counts.

And so, despite my high regard for it the 7190 went back to Fido. Later that year I bought another unlocked one on eBay for my older brother. He didn’t want it, informing me that he had no need for a cell phone since he was chained to a desk for most of the day. A few years later his new employer gave him a BlackBerry, which he became addicted to in short order.