In the Wireless Market, Which Comes First?

SAN MATEO (07/31/2000) - Are IT executives using the less-than-perfect performance of wireless technology as an excuse to put off the more important strategic decision of how to deploy wireless in their business?

Forgive me if I'm talking like a marketing guy, but shouldn't these executives first make a decision to have a wireless strategy and only then find the right technology to implement it, not the other way around?

As the technology goes, WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) seems to take the most heat, maybe because it's a front-runner. Some people claim that the limitations of WAP's WML (Wireless Markup Language) force developers to create nonstandard extensions. And the claims that the lack of standardization extends to WAP gateways have some merit.

But it is not as though IT never worked in a mixed hardware, software, and OS environment before. Yet when it comes to wireless, everyone is waiting for a single standard, or so they claim. But some companies, especially those in the financial services industry, can't wait to make a decision. So what are they doing?

Chase Manhattan Bank Corp., the second-largest bank and third-largest financial services company in North America, has a thousand traders in its Global Trade Market division, yet the IT department has not issued a list of approved wireless devices. Traders use a mix of WAP-enabled cell phones, digital cells without WAP, Palm VIIs, and RIM (Research in Motion) pagers. I'm sure that in some cases, traders are using all of the above.

Because traders need to stay in touch with the markets 24 hours a day, Chase is piloting a program with WASP (wireless application service provider ) DataLink.net, in San Jose, Calif. The service customizes the information that's pushed to the traders in real time so it doesn't matter where they are. When a third of those traders get up at 5 a.m. to work the 6 a.m. shift, they need to know what happened in Asia the night before.

If Chase had chosen a single best-of-breed platform for its traders, they might have had an easier time. But as it is, DataLink serves up five separate views for cell phones, Web clippings for Palm VIIs, and uses the Bell South packet network for the larger RIM 900 series handhelds. It's not an ideal solution, but the more information the traders have, the more money Chase makes. If they know about market movements before anybody else, they can make money sooner and that's why Chase is willing to pay US$200 to $250 per month per trader for the service.

So, to help those of you out there who are sitting on the wireless-strategy fence, for whatever reason, here are a few positive things going on in the WAP world.

For corporate developers, Macromedia has collaborated with Nokia to create a WAP plug-in to Macromedia's Dreamweaver Web authoring environment called WML Studio. It's a free download and it has a GUI, allowing developers to create cards in a WML deck. (A card is equivalent to a Web page and a deck is equivalent to a complete site.) Developers can load content into the simulator and it renders the page live. Events that are associated with times can be set up to move to next pages or entirely new decks. The system also can be run via a WAP gateway to make sure it all actually works. New cards can easily be added along with some limited graphics and links between cards. The screen displays all the cards at once in actual cell phone resolution.

Of course, how to tie this into the back end is happily a task best left to software engineers, not columnists. Macromedia product manager Matt Brown assures me it's all very easy.

There's also a very nifty Web site called Cellmania.com that indexes and previews more than 5,000 WAP-enabled Web sites, adding well over 100 new sites per week. It allows registered users to bookmark and put their favorite sites in order on their desktop. Once that task is complete, sites show up when users log on and access the Bookmarks icon on their cell phones. The Cellmania desktop site indexes WAP sites by category and also has a cell phone simulator.

When checking out a WAP site from your desktop, the site thinks it is communicating with a cell phone, so you see the site as it would appear on a phone. This is a great time-saver, especially when you're being charged by the minute.

Finally, I spoke with the CEO of the WAP Forum, Scott Goldman. Although Goldman admits that WAP isn't perfect, he reminds us that neither was Netscape 1.0.

Goldman offered some insights into what's coming next for the wireless protocol.

To allay complaints that there are few WAP-enabled phones actually on the market, Goldman says in addition to offerings from the big three cell phone manufacturers, in the next 90 days there will be 17 new WAP-enabled phones from second-tier handset manufacturers such as Philips, Sanyo, Siemens, and Alcatel.

Also on the horizon: WAP Version 1.3 will be released this fall (approximately October) and will include PKI (public key infrastructure) as well as what Goldman calls "end-to-end security." Earlier Version 1.2 won't be able to take advantage of the new security features, but will be compatible with Version 1.3 gateways. More compatibility between gateways is also promised, so that a Nokia phone on a Phone.com gateway could access the server. Contrary to rumors that the next version of WAP will include the capability of recognizing i-mode compact HTML coding, Goldman says the forum has no intention of doing that.

"WML is built on XML, the WC3's [World Wide Web Consortium's] approved next-generation language of the Internet," Goldman says. Compact HTML is proprietary and not built on the Internet's next-generation language. Being a "good citizen" of the Internet means that WML is assured a place in the XML world of the future. Compact HTML "can't say that," Goldman says.

Is Napster coming to cell phones?

At an MP3 user conference last month in San Diego, MP3 Chairman and CEO Michael Robertson demonstrated a music service that can broadcast licensed musical content to a cell phone. Because MP3 files, usually 3MB to 4MB, are too big to be stored on a cell phone, such a service would be broadcast-only.

But a year ago Ericsson showed me a prototype cell phone due out in 2001 that had a connector at the bottom for add-on modules. One of those modules was an MP3 player with plenty of flash memory for storage.

Enter Napster. Surely Napster will wade in with a cell phone version of its popular MP3 copying program. And if Napster gets a green light from the courts, such as the one they got from Congress last week, there will be plenty of Napster copycats, too. Wouldn't it be a touch of irony if Napster sues software developers for copyright infringement?

By this time next year, friends will be sending each other MP3 music files from cell phone to cell phone. Personally, I think it would increase, not decrease, music sales. I don't know about you, but if I liked a single song, I would go right out and buy the entire CD. With the slow data rates, this might not happen in a big way until we get the higher data rates from 2.5G and 3G cell phones, which claim download times from 1.2Mbps to 2.4Mbps. I wonder: Are e-book files the next target of Napster?

Where do you stand on Napster? E-mail me at ephraim_schwartz@infoworld.com.

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