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Where Are We Now?

Right now wireless appears to be rising from the trough of disillusionment and moving up its own slope of enlightenment. I say this because there is less hype surrounding wireless than before, and companies are realizing that wireless is fundamentally different from wired connectivity. Devices matter and user interfaces can't be ignored.

Across the industry, developments are occurring along different fronts, including WAP, XHTML, 3G rollout, WLANs, and Java for handhelds. Let's take a brief look at each.

WAP and XHTML

WAP is taking a serious look at itself and restructuring to better deliver content to users. The upcoming WAP 2.0 specification calls for replacing WAP's own Wireless Markup Language (WML) with XHTML, the new W3C XML-ized version of HTML. XHTML is especially exciting for wireless content delivery in that it's extensible—capable of accommodating the requirements of different handheld devices, including PDAs and cell phones. Because WAP layers itself on top of any carrier technology, the arrival of higher-speed 2.5G and 3G networks will improve bandwidth. Additionally, the "always on," packet-switched connectivity provided by 2.5G and 3G networks will sidestep the need to dial in to get connected. The coming generation of WAP will always be "on."

3G

Both Japan's i-mode and British Telecomm have postponed the rollout of their 3G networks due to technical problems with handsets and infrastructure. However, the rollout of 2.5G services such as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is pushing bandwidth up to 3G levels. 2.5G requires only software changes to existing 2G systems. This increases bandwidth, but more importantly moves networks to "always on" packet switching, which many attribute to the success of Japan's i-mode service.

Wireless LANs (WLANs)

Wireless local area networks (WLANs) are the slow-but-steady gainer in the quest for wireless connectivity. Instead of trying to cover the globe with a wireless umbrella, WLANs, based on the IEEE 802.11b standard, are carving out wireless turf with fixed points of access. The net effect is an evolving concept of mobility that includes users moving into the coverage area of WLAN access points.

Case in point: Starbucks Coffee Company is installing WLANs with Internet connectivity in 400 of its stores, so mobile, laptop-carrying coffee drinkers can connect laptops using wireless LAN cards that can be rented or purchased at Starbucks. Also planned are options for enrolling in wireless access plans, either per minute or monthly.

The joint venture of Starbucks, Microsoft, and MobileStar is following the "if you build it, they will come" strategy of setting up fixed zones of wireless connectivity. Already in the mix is a plan to allow roaming from WLAN to WLAN, so that users moving from one WLAN to another can do so with a single account identity.

Interestingly, the developments occurring in WLANs represent a bottom-up approach to wireless that contrasts with the top-down strategy of the major telecomm carriers.

Devices and Development

In the desktop world, PCs are virtually interchangeable. But in the wireless realm, devices matter. The key to success in building or extending applications for wireless deployment is getting the device right. Options include cell phones, PDAs, pagers, handheld computers, and laptops. Cell phones excel at voice, with very limited screen real estate and phone keypads. Pagers deliver instant messaging and now sport full but small keyboards, good for two-way messaging. Because each of these device types relies on a different underlying operating system to provide application services, device selection brings with it the added risk of platform lock-in. For example, an application built for the PalmOS platform requires significant modification in order to work on a Blackberry pager.

Table 1 lists the various platform options and their pros and cons.

Table 1 Mobile Device Operating Systems: Pros and Cons

Wireless OS

Devices

Pro(s)

Con(s)

PalmOS

Palm PDAs; Handspring Visor; Kyocera phones

Tight coupling with hardware; extensive developer base

Difficult to augment with additional functionality

RIM Blackberry

RIM Blackberry Pagers

Tight coupling with hardware; "always on" message delivery

Difficult to add capabilities

PocketPC

Compaq iPAQ; Sony CLIÉ; HP Jornada; Casio Cassiopeia

Mobile versions of familiar Windows programs

Expense; battery usage

EPOC

Symbian handhelds and cell phones

Designed from bottom up for cell phones and handheld computers

Not widely used in U.S.


Java and Wireless

Java is turning out to be the great equalizer in the device platform wars. Java for wireless devices is available as the Java2 Micro Edition (J2ME), a streamlined version of Java designed for the constraints of handheld devices. Because J2ME is available for the PalmOS, Microsoft's PocketPC, RIM's Blackberry, and Symbian's EPOC, it's possible to develop a Java application for one platform and port that application to another platform without modification. This of course assumes that the screen display is comparable. Keep in mind that devices matter, and what works on one device from a user interface perspective may fail miserably on a smaller device. Yet overall, J2ME reduces the risk of targeting a specific platform for deployment and getting locked into an operating system.

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