Wireless delivery drives forward

Wireless Web services pioneers are breaking new ground to foster the delivery of a wide range of offerings to myriad wireless devices, which will serve as end points for these challenging uses of the Web.

Adding support for mobile and wireless systems to their Web services wares, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, IBM, BEA Systems, Oracle, and HP Middleware are moving fast to live up to their promises of "anytime, anywhere" access to data, systems, and services.

Microsoft Corp. earlier this year issued Mobile Information Server and more recently handed out a nearly final version of the .Net Compact Framework, which is designed to help developers create applications and Web services for mobile devices.

Users, too, foresee the enormous impact that wireless Web services could have on b-to-c (business-to-customer) and b-to-b (business-to-business) enterprises. General Motors' OnStar in-vehicle telematics subsidiary is anticipating business opportunities by better leveraging Web services via wireless.

"We have a strong ambition to get into more of the transaction-based business, the notion of ecommerce," said Bruce Radloff, chief technology officer (CTO) of OnStar, based in Troy, Mich.

GM rival Mercedes-Benz and infrastructure providers MagnetPoint and Infragistics are also taking steps toward wireless Web services.

OnStar is paving the way for wireless Web services through a component-based framework that allows a company to take, deploy, and reuse the software pieces they need, Radloff said.

OnStar plans to roll out a host of consumer and b-to-b services to its ever-widening customer base beginning next year.

"On the drive home, people may want to order pizza for the kids," Radloff said. "This is similar to Microsoft's .Net approach of enabling people to manage private information and execute at their discretion."

The goal is to deploy these services on a standard development platform that will reduce development costs.

OnStar has three service delivery channels that it hopes to satisfy with a single development effort. An OnStar subscriber can access information via the Web; use its Virtual Advisor, a hands-free, voice-controlled in-vehicle service; or push the blue OnStar button and have a human respond within 10 seconds to 20 seconds.

"What we have been trying to do with our weather service is to deploy it on all three platforms but develop the service one time," Radloff said.

Further out is a fourth channel for accessing OnStar-branded services on handheld devices via a portal, said Chet Huber, OnStar's president. "It is a logical extension to access these services from other places," Huber said.

In general, Radloff foresees two key benefits to wireless Web services. The first is the ability to access information from multiple devices, fostering customer loyalty through the broad accommodation of platforms.

The second benefit is the back-end adherence to standards, Radloff said. "You have access to a whole lot more solutions and a larger development community," he added.

Mercedes-Benz entered the race for wireless Web services at Comdex this week when it showcased a car of the near future with a built-in wireless connection that will capture high-speed bursts of data from roadside transceivers.

Mercedes officials said this "InfoFueling" infrastructure will allow drivers to download music, video, up-to-the-minute maps, weather and traffic reports, and e-mail delivered in a text-to-speech presentation. Mercedes demonstrated the capability using a prototype car fitted with a wireless telematics system.

Although the system is not meant to replace cellular for voice, Mercedes officials said their WLAN (wireless LAN) approach to accessing data is less costly and more efficient than the cellular method.

Whereas Mercedes and OnStar work on customer-facing solutions, infrastructure providers such as MagnetPoint toil behind the scenes. A subcontractor for Hewlett-Packard, MagnetPoint is the prime contractor for OnStar's rollout of Web services.

"We create the tools that allow a company to script against the various services without requiring that the service providers create dozens of customized versions for the various handheld platforms," said Kayvan Alikhani, CTO of MagnetPoint.

Alikhani said MagnetPoint's suite is "a HailStorm for Java" and both Sun and IBM have inquired about how they can potentially use it, although no deals are in place yet. The MagnetStudio suite offers a set of services similar to Microsoft's .Net My Services, with email, calendar, contacts, and other productivity-type applications.

Another company looking to meld Web services to mobile and wireless devices, Infragistics, is planning to update its LeadServer sales-distribution software to J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) 1.3 and EJB (Enterprise JavaBeans) 2.0 in January.

These most recent Java specifications will enable LeadServer to be used as a Web service, according to Dean Guida, chief executive officer (CEO) of Infragistics, in Cranbury, New Jersey. LeadServer collects sales leads and automates their distribution to the appropriate salespeople. Because of the Web services support, leads can be sent to people anywhere, regardless of whether they are at a desk or are using a mobile device somewhere in the field.

Development and standards hurdles are not the only challenges related to accessing Web services via mobile devices, however. According to one industry analyst, lingering telephony issues of coverage, speed, pricing, and usability remain an obstacle. If business users are going to accept this delivery mechanism, these services will need to be available all the time.

"The software security and standards issues will be solved more quickly than these type of coverage issues," said David Hayden, president and CEO of Mobile-Week, a Palo Alto, California-based mobile and wireless consultancy.

Hayden said if the carriers offered widespread, reliable coverage and good throughput with either the new GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or the coming next-generation, high-performance data network options, the infrastructure would be ready for Web services.

Developers, for their part, will have to be ready to accommodate a variety of environments, said Eric Rudder, senior vice president for Microsoft's developer and platform evangelism division. "The key isn't just display. It's also about voice and handwriting capabilities," Rudder said. "I think you have to write different code for different modalities."

Not surprisingly then, some potential users are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

A major challenge to the wireless delivery of Web services is "a user base that is not as technologically savvy as some of the services demand," said Gerard Johnson, director of technology at Home Shopping Network (HSN), based in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In other words, HSN has to ensure that any Web services it adopts are easy to use, Johnson said. This holds especially true for wireless access. "I think wireless for Web services should be natural, it should be an extension of the interface," he said.

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