The Promises and Realities of Wireless Data

NEW ORLEANS (03/03/2000) - Despite a flurry of vendor announcements this week that promise wireless data for everyone, don't expect to access your corporate application servers with a handset anytime soon.

Companies ranging from little-known Net Morf and Logica to Internet bigwigs like America Online Inc. announced plans to bring data to wireless users over the Net. However, slow wireless networks, suspect security and poor navigation tools will stifle adoption of wireless Web services in the near term, experts say.

"The wireless data market will die a thousand deaths in the business and consumer markets as service providers navigate their way through the quagmire that is legacy networks and technologies," says Bob Egan, a research director at Gartner Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn., consulting firm.

This week's news runs the gamut, but some of the developments were simply focused on offering users typical Web content. For instance, Motorola plans to include a bookmark on several of its Internet-ready phones that will link users directly to a specially designed Amazon.com Web page.

But more interesting were announcements from Net Morf and Logica, which introduced server platforms Site Morfer and m-WorldPortal, respectively. The servers are designed to let users access corporate applications from any type of mobile phone via the Net.

The idea is to set up a portal server that's collocated with a business user's application server. When a mobile user tries to access his corporate network, his request will first hit the portal server. The server determines the type of phone the user has and what application the user is trying to access. The requested information is then form-fitted and presented on the handset. The initial request for data originates on a wireless service provider's network, but the request is then sent to the public Internet, which is how the request reaches the user's corporate network.

This is also the basis for Wireless Knowledge's Revolv service. Revolv lets wireless users access Microsoft Ex-change servers using AT&T's cellular digital packet data network, for example.

Oracle has its own take on wireless Web portal services, although the company seems uncertain how to relate the wireless Web to business needs in its newly launched Oracle Mobile.com portal. Denise Lahey, CEO of OracleMobile. com, has vaguely discussed working with Oracle's direct sales force to penetrate corporate accounts, and about hosting content for enterprise customers. But OracleMobile.com's energies are focused on becoming a consumer portal or a service offered by wireless carriers to their wireless phone users.

Strategis Group predicts that 300,000 users will subscribe to wireless Web portal services this year, with that number ballooning to 25 million by 2006.

Many of the subscribers will likely be business users.

Such rosy scenarios come brimming with "ifs," however. The lack of security, big-league bandwidth and intuitive clients will initially slow business-driven wireless portal services, says Callie Pottorf, research analyst at IDC, a Framingham, Mass., consulting firm. Wireless users on AT&T, Sprint PCS or Bell Atlantic's networks are generally not going to see data transfer speeds any higher than 14.4K-bps, Pottorf says. "That's not optimal for surfing the Web or downloading e-mail," she adds.

When you throw in the fact that some wireless Web portals are designed to let users access corporate applications, you can be sure an IT manager is going to want to see stringent security measures. And when you add encryption, digital certificates or a public-key infrastructure (PKI) system to any data traffic, you're adding overhead, Egan says. Overhead is one thing most wireless networks can't support today, he adds.

But groups such as Baltimore Telepathy and the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) Forum are addressing security issues. Baltimore Telepathy is a wireless security initiative started by PKI vendor Baltimore Technologies. Twenty vendors last week joined Baltimore Telepathy to focus on developing secure products and a complete electronic security framework for secure mobile commerce, says Steven Kruse, chief evangelist at the Boston firm.

The WAP Forum has been discussing security for some time and has already developed recommendations such as the use of Wireless Transport Layer Security (WTLS) digital certificates instead of using the X.509 Version 3 certificates that are used on most terrestrial networks. WTLS, a nonstandard digital certificate, is believed to be easier to implement and support, Kruse says.

But while vendors talk about the need for security, the fact is wireless networks were built for voice and not for data, Egan says. Securing data will be essential for business users to adopt wireless data services, but that will not happen until the wireless networks support faster transmission speedsHelp may be on the way. One specification called General Packet Radio Service will let global systems for mobile communications (GSM) wireless service providers beef up their networks to about 130K bit/sec by the end of next year.

Enhanced data rate for global evolution is designed to speed up both GSM and Time Division Multiple Access wireless networks to about 384K-bps, but EDGE won't be available until 2002 or later, Pottorf says. And then there is the third-generation (3G) specifications that are expected to increase wireless data transmission speeds to up to 20M bit/sec, but analysts don't expect to see 3G deployments until 2005 or so.

In the meantime, some systems integrators and users are taking advantage of wireless technology before the carriers speed up their networks. Aether Technologies, a wireless system integrator in Owings Mills, Md., is creating real-time wireless networks for its customers, says David Oros, chairman at Aether.

To create these kinds of applications requires software development tools, a rethinking of application design, middleware and expertise with a given handheld operating system and device, both of which have limited resources: small screens, little memory, few buttons. The Web, with its typical latencies, can actually be a bottleneck for these applications.

Network World Senior Editor John Cox contributed to this story.

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