From WML to HTML5 – A Very Concise History

In the beginning of the cellphone era, mobile handsets were just phones. The only major innovation in terms of services offered came in the 1990s with the introduction of SMS (or short messaging service). At about that same time ~1997 The WAP Forum, a consortium of companies which included Motorola and OpenWave, released a spec for WAP 1.0 with the promise of delivering the internet to millions of existing mobile users around the world. As it was the height of the dot-com craze, needless to say it created a lot of hype. (see WAP, WML, Mobile Design and Development for more details).

However, handsets then did not have the processing power and 2G networks then did not have the bandwidth capacity to provide the same user experience that the internet population were used to at the time. Hence, a less rich markup language WML (or Wireless Markup Language) was used instead of HTML. It was a very strict markup as handsets then did not have a lot of memory, the browsers’ footprint had to be small – this meant that, if the page was not well-formed it would simply not be displayed. This not only made creating and testing mobile web sites difficult, the user experience was also a huge disappointment. This was compounded by the fact that the whole mobile web idea was over-sold by the handset and operator equipment vendors and further fueled by the whole dot-com hype.

A WML Browser - from

A WML Browser - from

At about the same time in Japan, NTT Docomo was launching i-mode which adopted a compact form of HTML called cHTML (or Compact Hyper Text Markup Language) but which supported the use of accesskeys to address the lack of a pointing device (eg. mouse) for navigation. This was much more successful than the WML/WAP 1.x combination as Docomo were not only able to supply better handsets but also create an entire mobile eco-system around this technology.


i-Mode pages (from

It was not until around 2002 and with WAP 2.0 that adopted xHTML as the markup language, better handsets and improved networks (2.5G) that the mobile internet started to become meaningful. However, many operators kept the “walled garden” concept where they tightly controlled what was displayed on their “deck” (ie. the operator’s mobile web portal). If you were a mobile web publisher then, that was the Holy Grail in terms of getting your site distributed to users since the operators would get their handset vendors to fix the mobile web icon to link directly to their deck. Interestingly, the main mode of monetization even then was selling ringtones and wallpapers – the mobile web then was just another distribution channel.

Between then and 2007, a few things happened – (1) operators were rolling out 3G networks and hence needed compelling content to drive traffic; (2) major handset vendors eg. Nokia, Motorola, Sony-Ericsson built better handsets with better color screens, xHTML browsers; (3) traditional internet players such as MSN, Yahoo!, Google started upgrading their mobile web offerings to take advantage of these developments – such as working with operators aggressively to distribute their content. This provided the impetus for growth in mobile web usage – albeit gradual.

In 2007 a fundamental shift in the mobile space occurred – Apple released the iPhone. In one single device, you now had not just a fully functioning phone, MP3 player and camera – you had essentially an internet device with a decent Web browser! Not only was the screen resolution really good, the Web browser able to support Javascript, CSS well, the touchscreen supported “swipe” and the accelerometer allowed users to quickly switch the browser from “portrait” and “landscape” mode for viewing pages. It all added up to make browsing on the device a truely delightful experience!

Not to be outdone, other handset manufacturers started upgrading their models with better browsers too – Motorola, Samsung, HTC partnering with Google on the Android platform, Nokia upgrading its WebKit browser on the Symbian3 platform, and Microsoft with its Windows Mobile 7. This all led to a surge in mobile web traffic and publishers rushed to produce sites tailored for these new devices.

At the same time as all these are happening, another trend was emerging – cheap, low cost, generic handsets were flooding the market. These were based on chipsets from companies such as MTK and are mostly manufactured in China but come in a variety of brands – eg. Micromax, Nexian. These handsets filled a gap that was emerging (especially in emerging markets – pardon the pun) due to the handset vendors’ push to more and more powerful smartphones – that of simple handsets that fulfilled basic needs – voice calls, SMS, basic web browsing. These handsets usually came pre-bundled with the MAUI browser and OperaMini browsers. The former only supported xHTML, no CSS and Javascript and OperaMini browsers supports xHTML and CSS via a transcoder – this means that HTTP requests do not hit the sites directly but instead hit a transcoder server that makes the actual request and transforms the response to a form suitable for rendering by the browser.

Micromax handset

Micromax handset (from

Over the last few years, PC browsers eg. Chrome, Firefox and IE have started to support various portions of the HTML5 specification. HTML5 comes with it some really cool features such as Canvas (which allows for javascript controlled drawings), video/audio (no more needing to download plug-ins), storage capabilities for offline operation (imagine a built in database on the browser). At the point of writing this, the level of support across the various major handset browsers ie. Safari (iOS), Android browser, Symbian S60 – are not equivalent, with the Safari for iOS the most advanced in its support for HTML5. HTML5 itself deserves separate treatment and will be the subject of another post.

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