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SMS versus WAP

SMS is the short messaging service for GSM. It is also present on most other digital cellular networks and tends to operate in a similar fashion on each network. SMS enables 2-way short messages to be sent between GSM subscribers. Using gateways, it is also possible to interchange messages with other systems such as Internet email, the web etc. So, SMS is essentially a messaging transport service to enable reliable 2-way messaging.

WAP on the other hand is a "protocol set" aboard which various services can be delivered. Like any protocol, it states how devices can be made compatible ("speak the same language") in order to exchange information. Since SMS is a means for information to be transported, two devices could use SMS to exchange WAP-compliant data.

As well as being a transport service, SMS also has a protocol. However, as mentioned earlier, the SMS protocol is really only concerned with reliable 2-way messaging and so it is restricted to basic functionality. In protocol terms, this means a very basic command set such as "Send Message" and "Receive Message". Clearly for anything more sophisticated, this protocol is very limited. However, there's nothing to stop another protocol being added on top with more commands that just get sent using the Send and Receive of SMS. This is what WAP does.

So why does WAP do this? Well, to use the mobile phone to converse with any information-delivery system (such as the web or a database), the method of delivery needs to be tailored to the limitations of the phone - mainly the small text-only display, and the restrictive keyboard and navigation keys. So a part of WAP is concerned with sensible data formatting and navigation appropriate to these limitations. However, sending data over mobile air interfaces poses problems with delays and slow links. These can be overcome to an extent by optimizing the way in which the protocol is mapped to the interface (such as the SMS carrier or an ordinary GSM data call). Another part of WAP is concerned with efficient protocol transport.

So is SMS still needed after WAP? The answer is yes. Firstly there are many applications that simply do not need WAP. The simple send and receive primitives of SMS are sufficient. Also, there is often no need, or no context, to maintain an ongoing (connected) communications session over SMS and so SMS tends to get used in a connectionless mode, like sending a letter or an email - whereby immediate, or even any, response is not required (though it may be desirable at times).

Many SMS messages are alerts of one kind or another, used to notify the recipient of an event. These types of messages usually require follow-on action other than sending a reply using SMS. In these circumstances, SMS is sufficient and there is no need to move to WAP.

Secondly, WAP is not widely available yet and there are millions of phones that can handle SMS but not WAP. These will stay in circulation for some time.

WAP is particularly useful for interactive services on the handset. Interactive services can be realized using native SMS, but this is not as elegant as WAP. Using WAP, the user can be prompted for information and guided along the interactivity path, whereas while using only SMS, the user has to remember how to respond with any preset commands.

SMS and WAP are different entities and are often complimentary. A well designed application would exploit the essential characteristics of SMS and WAP to suit the end-user requirements. For fast alert or quick-shot pull systems, SMS is a good solution. For any communications requiring ongoing interaction with a hierarchical data source, WAP is a good solution. Sometimes, both solutions can be used to get the best of both worlds.