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Prepare to get WAPped

September 10, 2001

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I’m not sorry I never bothered to learn Wireless Markup Language (WML, the markup used for WAP 1.0 phones). The market for Web content on mobile phones isn’t there quite yet, despite the promises that they are the next big thing, and despite the extraordinary wads of cash that telecommunications companies dropped on third-generation spectrum in Europe. But this year, WAP 2.0 phones will be coming on the market, from Nokia and others. As Nokia’s documentation shows [377kb PDF file], WAP 2.0 uses XHTML Basic. That’s right, the cut-down, modular version of the markup language you already know and love.

So if you are one of the diligent Web designers who has been paying attention to the W3 and the standards they recommend, you’re ready. However, if you’re one of those FONT-tag loving, nested-table-building, single-pixel-GIF hacking tag-soup generators, prepare for a bunch of work before your content can be viewed using WAP phones.

And get this – WAP 2.0 phones will have support for CSS, including margins and padding and all the other joys of the box model, but not the FONT tag. And all this without the need for a different protocol, since unlike the original version, WAP 2.0 uses HTTP 1.1. Who’s laughing now? Not the dim bulbs who insisted on making their sites look identical in, say, Netscape 3.0 and Opera 5.0.

What’s in WAP 2.0 / XHTML Basic

Structure Module

body, head, html, title

Text Module

abbr, acronym, address, blockquote, br, cite, code, dfn, div, em, h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6, kbd, p, pre, q, samp, span, strong, var

Hypertext Module


List Module

dl, dt, dd, ol, ul, li

Basic Forms Module

form, input, label, select, option, textarea

Basic Tables Module

caption, table, td, th, tr

Image Module


Object Module

object, param

Metainformation Module


Link Module


Base Module


So what’s in XHTML Basic? The more important thing is what is not in XHTML Basic – font, b, i, u, tt and a bunch of other presentational tags, as well as some HTML 4.0 table elements like tbody and tfoot. Some of the attributes that you might be accustomed to, such as height and width attributes for table cells, have also been dropped for this version. Given that these attributes were mainly used by designers to enforce fixed-pixel layouts intended for big PC-type screens, this is just as well. Most of the devices hooked to WAP 2.0 are going to have smaller screens than those fixed-pixel designs require. Now you know why I don’t like “ice” layouts. Neither will your new potential customers with Web-enabled phones, PDAs, whatever.

People are already starting to spec out their sites in XHTML Strict or Basic, including sites we’ve linked to previously, like Kirk Franklin’s There are plenty of sites that could easily go to XHTML Basic with a minimum of work. If you can do Strict, then in most cases I’ll bet you can do Basic without changing any markup. MacEdition probably could, although it would mean a new round of CSS testing to make sure that bad-boy browsers like Netscape 4.x can cope with CSS styling for tables; I already know that a fully table-free version of MacEdition looks like crud on Netscape 4, so I’m not ready to try it. Still, the further the Netscape 4.x share of our traffic falls, and the further that of AvantGo rises (now around 2% of MacEdition’s pageviews), the less I have this excuse.

I’m not quite ready to go XHTML Basic, but new sites can, and sites with big budgets definitely should.

There are a few pieces of the puzzle missing before we can be confident that our sites look appropriate and attractive on both standard computers and handheld devices simultaneously. Firstly, we need to be confident that we can use the media="handheld" attribute for our linked stylesheets, to serve up content in a format that is appropriate to the device being used. That means we need to know that handhelds know to use the stylesheet for handhelds, and that the myriad of junk browsers for the desktop world know to ignore it. Secondly, we need tools to convert existing pages to XHTML Basic – an extended version of HTML Tidy would be ideal. Thirdly, we need enhanced editing packages that know about these newer DOCTYPES, and can insert the correct declarations and XHTML syntax.

And finally, we need to remember that not everyone uses IE5 or 6 on Windows, and that appropriate formatting and graceful degradation are worthy aims.

— CodeBitch ( is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition. Read other articles by CodeBitch

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