New guidelines to improve wireless Web services

Leading wireless Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) phone makers and operators announced guidelines Wednesday to provide more consistent handset features and services in next-generation devices.

The members of the new Mobile Services Initiative group include the world's three largest handset makers, L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co., Motorola Inc. and Nokia. But the effort was also hailed by wireless operators, such as AT&T Wireless and Voicestream Wireless, that depend on GSM and its next-generation network known as General Packet Radio Services (GPRS).

Part of the motivation behind the effort, which was coordinated by the GSM Association in London, is to move beyond perceived usability problems with Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) phones and to enhance wireless browsing of the Web, said Mark Smith, the association's director of communications.

In its guidelines, the association said it also wants to "replicate the success" of the iMode service offered by NTT DoCoMo in Japan, which is known for its ease of use.

Analysts said any set of guidelines that will provide consistency for users is welcome. "GPRS phone makers and operators definitely need more continuity as new services roll out," said Peter Firstbrook, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Today, users can't count on phones having consistent displays, with the same size, number of lines of text or characters, much less consistent buttons for functionality, he said. For example, Firstbrook said, he has an Ericsson phone that has a button marked "No" next to a "Yes" button, which is used to turn the phone on and off. Other phones say "OK" for powering on or off, and there are other button variations as well.

Manufacturers and operators were vague yesterday about specific ways phones and services on them might become uniform with the initiative, but they did offer some insights.

An AT&T spokesman said the initiative means its GPRS customers could expect to have "a simple and consistent way of accessing and delivering information," say, through e-mail or Short Message Service or the anticipated Multimedia Messaging Service. "This could mean minimizing keystrokes for accessing information or providing a simple voice interface to access info," said the spokesman.

Motorola issued "strong support" for the MServices Initiative in a statement. "Motorola will review its portfolio of devices, platforms and solutions and adapt them to support the newly defined M-Services features as soon as possible," said Janiece Webb, general manager of Motorola's Internet Software and Content Group.

Motorola spokeswoman Sue Frederick said the initiative will provide consistency between GPRS carriers and handset makers for downloadable graphics, music, streaming video, games, ring tones and screen savers. Currently, Motorola makes six GSM handsets that are equipped to support GPRS networks being launched this year.

A Voicestream spokeswoman said the initiative will support its efforts to "personalize a customer's experience." Both Voicestream and AT&T are launching GPRS services this summer, with an "always on" connection in the 56K to 114K bit/sec. range of bandwidth.

The GSMA's Smith said the association is depending on its handset makers and operators to implement the guidelines as they see fit, and the 37-page set of guidelines describes mandatory requirements for a variety of common functions. Some of the items call for a one-button "return" or "forward" of an e-mail and prescribed screen sizes and font sizes.

In addition, the guidelines call for the phones to have download agents to provide easier downloading of ring tones, screen savers or wallpaper. Also, there must be room for up to 20 ring tones to be stored at once, with a one-click ability to delete a tone.

One principle benefit of the guidelines could be to help application developers who have found the current version of WAP difficult to work on, analysts and members of the association said. Smith stressed that the MServices initiative doesn't mean the end of WAP and will instead serve as a bridge between WAP 1.2, used today, and WAP 2.0, to be released next year.

While GSM users are relatively small in number in the U.S., GSM is widely used in Europe. However, GSM/GPRS growth will be substantial in the U.S. and reach roughly half of all users by 2003, Firstbrook said. That would include Voicestream, AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless users, he said.

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