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What Is Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)?

A person holding a clamshell mobile phone.

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) is a packet-switching protocol that was designed for micro-browsers. Most mobile wireless networks and mobile phones from 1999-2010 used WAP to access the Internet. 

For years, WAP provided the framework so that wireless devices can communicate instantly between themselves and the Internet. Today, WAP is essentially obsolete, as modern mobile browsers are designed to have the same network functionality as a desktop or laptop computer.

A man using a phone

How Does Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) Work?

The WAP includes a whole suite of protocols. It allows any networks, browsers, or devices that are using the same protocols to communicate with one another. 

Although XML, UDP, and IP are effectively used through the WAP suite, HTML, HTTP, and TLS use too much data for WAP to be efficient. WAP uses binary transmission to compress more data, but the bandwidth stays pretty low. This is thanks to high latency, low connection stability, and a lightweight protocol stack. 

Packet-Switching 

Packet-switching transmits data by breaking it down into multiple parts (packets) that are sent independently over the network and then reassembled upon arrival.

WAP was an efficient packet-switching system. 

The WAP Model: Step-by-Step

The WAP gateway acts as an intermediary between multiple clients and servers. Gateways convert information between different protocols.

  1. When the user enters a URL onto their phone’s browser, the phone sends a request to access that URL to a WAP gateway, via its mobile network.
  2. The request is sent to the Internet via a binary-encoded message, and the gateway serves as the translator that converts the URL request into a conventional HTTP request.  
  3. The web server that receives the HTTP request processes it just like it would process requests from any other device. 
  4. The URL may direct to a static WML (Wireless Markup Language) file, in which case, the server simply delivers the file as requested. If, however, the server is requesting a CGI script, there are some additional processing steps. 
  5. After the server adds the HTTP header, the gateway translates and compiles the WML into binary form and sends it back to the phone. 
  6. Upon receipt of the WML, the phone’s micro-browser processes it, and the content is displayed on the screen.

The WAP Protocol Stack

There are 5 layers to WAP’s protocol stack

  • Application Layer
  • Session Layer
  • Transaction Layer
  • Security Layer
  • Transport Layer

Why Was Wireless Access Protocol Useful? 

WAP was introduced in 1999 because mobile device users needed a better online experience. Additionally, content providers and wireless network operators needed to be able to provide a better service. 

The WAP system was useful to each of these groups: content providers, wireless network companies, and mobile device users.

Content providers like app developers were able to create more apps and improve overall phone functionality. 

Wireless network companies were able to improve voicemail, applications, and modifications for their phones. And they can do it without making significant changes to infrastructure or manufacturing. 

Mobile device users may have benefited the most. They were able to access more content through their phones, including messaging, some Internet searches, banking, games, and entertainment. 

The Pros and Cons of WAP

WAP had a lot of advantages. It moved quickly and was completely free, as it was an open-source technology. It was originally created by a collaborative effort between Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson, and Unwired Planet, but it was used by many different platforms. 

There were high levels of control, and it worked very much like the Internet that users were accustomed to. Data was sent in real time, which meant no delays in sending or receiving information. 

When it was at the height of its usefulness, WAP made Internet usage easier and more consistent for mobile device users. 

The WAP connection was much slower than what we are used to with regular HTML Internet access. It was also not available on all networks, or in all locations. Connectivity was far less consistent, and the system was, in general, less secure.

A mobile phone displaying input for logins

Is a Wireless Access Protocol the Same as a Wireless Access Point?

No, the WAP is not the same as a Wireless Access Point. 

A wireless access point is what allows someone with a large physical property – such as a multi-level home or a large office building – to extend the capabilities of their wireless networks. The wireless access point fills gaps in coverage. It ensures that all users on a single network are able to access the Internet without interruption. 

Wireless access points use a word connection and broadcast its signal wirelessly. Most routers operate as their own access point. 

When and Why Did WAP Become Obsolete?

WAP was widely used for just over 10 years between 1999 and 2010. By 2013, it was almost entirely obsolete. Smartphones became more and more compatible with HTML, so there was no need to use WAP processes or programming in WML.

Today, the drawbacks of WAP are different from what they once were. Specifically, WAP is basically obsolete, because it is unnecessary. Therefore, implementing the WAP or using WML programming is a redundant process.

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