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Concepts for Working with Wireless Applications

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There is a nearly universal process for developing wireless applications, regardless of the devices or networks to be used. The process involves four steps: identifying the user of the final product, building relevant content, developing the application, and testing the application with a real device on a real network in a typical user situation.

This sample chapter is excerpted from Wireless Internet Applications and Architecture: Building Professional Wireless Applications Worldwide.

This chapter is from the book

Our working knowledge of the wireless Internet so far is a mix of concepts and trends. Trends such as "people will use more wireless devices than wired ones" help motivate and anticipate, but they do not really help us understand the principles to write software or deliver wireless content.

"To work for my wireless company, you should be familiar with these ideas," said the director. From this point forward we add the details of an application to the idea. There are six central ideas we have covered that you should know about and that we will illustrate.

  1. The person is mobile. Seems obvious. This idea changes everything once you understand it. The wireless Internet keeps people in motion. Once a person is mobile, the wireless content becomes personal. The unique qualities of personal behavior are established in the section "Mobile Users Are the Secret" in chapter 2. The practice is discussed in "Defining Your Mobile Audience" in this chapter.

  2. Six devices mobilize the Internet. Wireless devices need to be unified from a programmer's point of view. The characteristics of the Web phone, handheld, pager, voice portal, communicating appliances, and Web PC are introduced in "Close-up Characteristics of Wireless Devices" in chapter 9. A server solution unifies them all, as we will see in chapter 18, "Building Servers and Matching Client Applications."

  3. Four wireless applications drive the wireless Internet. Wireless application programming models include messaging, browsing, interacting, and conversing; they are compared in chapter 5. Programming examples of these applications appear throughout Part II.

  4. Three networks form the wireless Internet. The three Internet networks are WAN, LAN, and PAN; they differ in power, regulation, and data rates. The key network advantage is the packet-switched network over the circuit-switched WAN network. Applications are grouped by networks in chapter 4.

  5. Mobile content defines the wireless business. The value of content over software and hardware is detailed in chapter 5 in the section "Personal Content Drives the Wireless Internet." XML content defines portable data independent of style. Mobile content values of location, time, personalization, and transaction are covered in detail in chapters 7 and 8.

  6. Make location-based wireless applications and maximize mobility. The mobile person wants relevant information. Developing location-centered applications gives them place and time, and can often be personalized. Examples appear in chapter 5 in the section "Showing Location" and in chapter 8, the section "Primary Location Applications."

Underlying terminology like Mbps, MHz, 3G, 2G, 1G, CDMA, GSM, TDMA, AMPS are introduced in chapter 4. The physics of the wireless Internet are covered in chapter 3 in the section "Wireless Spectrum."

Remembering That Small Is Beautiful

Software engineers coming from the world of a large, blazing, color screen, a rip-roaring 80 GB drive, 40 MB applications, and a two-foot long keyboard, look aghast at dim screens of little cell phones, pagers, and handhelds. Yet, how long would you last if you had to tote all that gear wherever you went? In motion all the time, you would appreciate lightness, smallness. Top mobile engineers design small systems, giving users what they want, at the moment, wherever they are. These new engineers live by a different code. Think small.

The U.S. auto industry provides an example of a move from large to small. In the 1950s the U.S. car industry had reached the zenith of large, stylized muscle cars that consumed maximum fuel and had wildly changing styles year after year. Under the hood, their engines needed frequent maintenance. Tires had to be replaced every year. The Europeans brought to market a totally counterculture alternative vehicle, the VW Beetle, now revived in modern styling. The original VW was a shocking innovation. The technology changed automotive history and the honest understated advertising campaign changed marketing history. Rather than flashy and powerful, the German automobile was simple and adequate. The engine was the showpiece; it was gas efficient, air cooled, and mounted in the rear. What engineer could conceive of this? The homely VW was the original work of Ferdinand Porsche. His design used significantly fewer parts and simple systems that required lower maintenance than other automobiles. By eliminating the water pump, out went radiator failure. The suspension and tire system lasted an unheard-of 40,000 miles before a change.

Small hardware that runs all by itself is beautiful. Examples of compelling mobile devices (Figure 35) like the VW Bug have very small and efficient qualities. Unlike laptop PCs, the Web phone features a power-efficient operating system that runs for a much longer time before having to "fill-up" with a charge. It knows the time of day and knows where you are. It does not take three minutes to reboot. It is instant-on. Compared to the personal computer world, the wireless Internet is counterculture. It has its own content, its own culture. The vibrant mobile cultures do not care so much about "the Internet" as about utility and information. (Remember the i-mode story in chapter 1.) The counterculture inspires new ways of thinking about the possibility of communication and computation through the guise of mobile use.

Figure 35 Examples of compelling mobile devices. The Europeans establish a useful consumer technology as the North Americans produce business systems. The Japanese are thinking smaller still. Pictured beside the VW ad are a Nokia phone, a Nextel HDML phone, and an NTT DoCoMo i-mode phone. (Sources: Advertisement copyright © Volkswagen of America, Inc.; Nokia phone copyright © 2001 Nokia Corporation. Nextel HDML phone copyright © 2001 Motorola, Inc. NTT DoCoMo, Inc. Printed with permission. All rights reserved.)

When you think small, you make needless choices go away. When you work mobile, you do very specific bottom-line tasks. Good applications operate mostly as a wireless publishing channel. When you work offline and disconnected from the server, your system transparently queues messages and data. When the connection appears, it synchronizes updates, regardless of whether it is WAN, LAN, or PAN. At least that is how the professional systems work. Even system software is automatically updated over the air. Small wireless applications make use of one-click transactions. Ironically, to personalize wireless preferences for their small devices, users often work with their mega-gigabyte PC to set values and get content from large Web sites.

The relationship between the beautiful PC screen and the Spartan wireless small screen is like that between the muscle car and the VW Bug. A reminder of mobile utility (Figure 36) is that technology can be small and ugly, yet very reliable, taking you to useful places. Both the VW and its business model changed the standards of the world automotive industry. With the end of thinking in terms of "this year's model," it became necessary to produce only one repair manual and only one line of parts. This simplified manufacturing, inventorying, selling, and delivery to any place in the world. It was radical. It was simple. It was small.

Figure 36 A reminder of mobile utility (Source: Copyright © Volkswagen of America, Inc. Printed with permission. All rights reserved.)

Companies that took the trouble made a great leap forward with the Internet. The wireless Internet is another opportunity to eventually double the size of their public. There is special work involved in building the small application, although a wireless application and a Web-based application "can share the same garage." Mobile and wired development have many common engineering properties. To think small, however, companies have to think hard about what functions their users most want and use; companies must take a fresh look at the mobile customer. When mobile people use a computer socially, their purposes are different from when they are desk-bound. Sometimes they enjoy new utility provided by GPS, Bluetooth, scanners, or expandable modules. But the vital beep of unglamorous paged text often brings smiles.

Today's Internet video commercials often excite us to ill-conceived impossible futures; meanwhile the mobile wireless applications in actual use are being produced for a revolution that is not televised. Utility often battles glamour. How could a simple technology like the 1959 Volkswagen succeed against the muscle of Detroit? Volkswagen, with an annual advertising budget of $800,000, faced enormous U.S. automotive marketing campaigns such as the one that spent $8 million in four months for a car called the Edsel. Even with all that "convincing advertising," the Edsel went nowhere. Buyers understood the differences and small thinking prevailed.

Perhaps success depends on how you think about your mobile business. Steve Case, founder of AOL, built the largest media company in the world on slow dial-up connections (less than 56 kbps), which 88 percent of people in the United States experience as their Internet connection in 2001. People find great value in basic technology. Journalists and analysts often chronicle the disadvantages of wireless technology. In their jolly jaded confidence, they assert that people need powerful devices and faster connections. But a shrunken graphical supercomputer with a powerful connection is not useful on the road; nor is it likely to solve mobile problems. It is likely to slow you down. Mobile users need on-the-spot personal information from handy wireless devices. They need less, not more. This is new territory and a development team that is knowledgeable and focused on wireless possibilities can help discover the best purpose of a mobile application.

Much of the world either has a PC or does not need one. Many parts of the world find success in the wireless Internet as smaller, more efficient wireless devices connect simply with institutions that supply content and services. The makers of the technology and the culture that uses it understand that small is beautiful. This direct thinking has led to generous adoption rates in Japan. Must we wait for the gas-guzzling, power-hungry vehicle when it is clear that a small Bug will do?

"Thinking small" is the basis for a new wireless culture that experiences good mobile applications. It finds that Web sites waste time; simple text makes the point; direct personal applications work best; information about location and personalized data is an advantage. Thinking small is about messages and notes, not email and documents. The wireless features listed in Table 24 are for those who think small and talk small. A typical mobile traveler's feeling about mobile devices is, "The cool thing about my Web phone is that when I get off a plane, it sets the time automatically. It knows where it is. I do not have to boot it up. It does not crash. I can use it in more places than my PC. My important information is with me, as I need it. It is always on, I am always connected, and it fits in my pocket like car keys."

Table 24 Features of wireless devices compared to features of PCs

Wireless Small Talk

PC Big Talk

Battery life in days

Power supply in minutes for blackouts

Small and portable

Big and powerful

Weight in ounces

Weight in pounds

CPU functions in silicon

CPU functions in memory

Fits hand, fits pocket

Fits under a desk

Storage in megabytes

Storage in gigabytes

Memory in megabytes

Memory in hundreds of megabytes

Screen visibility, lines

Screen size 19" or bigger, millions of colors

Personal content

Enterprise application software

Touch screen

Three-button mouse with thumbwheel

Small keyboard

100 keys + 12 functions on 18"-wide keyboard

Network always on

Network always on

19.2 kbps or faster

128 kbps or faster



Voice clarity


Miniaturization is certainly the key trend in digital device manufacturing. Some say that cellular phone screens are too small. While these developers wait for the screen to come, leading engineers see a minimalist opportunity to build mobile wireless applications that are small and powerful. It is a design opportunity that does not come often. In a small text space, one can communicate simply and to the point of necessity. The challenge for developers is to determine essentially what people want when they are on the go and arriving at specific places.

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