Funny Things Happen to Wireless Web Access

BOSTON (06/05/2000) - A funny thing happened on the road to handheld, wireless Web access: Microsoft Corp. chose a different route. As a result, analysts are divided over whether handheld Internet devices will rely on data downloads specially configured for minimum size, or on devices that can handle full-featured Web pages and graphics, even on their tiny screens.

Microsoft has chosen the second approach with its new Pocket PC software, while two competing technologies, Web clipping and Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) are designed to streamline access by structuring and reducing the amount of data that a portable device needs to download.

Web clipping, used for wireless Palm Inc. handhelds, works through a special proxy server on a wireless network. Using a special application, the user generates a local query relative to data available on the Internet. The query is sent to the proxy server, which determines what is needed, goes to the appropriate Web sites and retrieves the data. The proxy server compresses the data and sends it back to the Palm, where the query application displays the response. But this works only with predefined types of queries (e.g., weather, airline flights, theater times).

WAP, oriented more toward Internet-enabled telephones, doesn't use a proxy server; instead, it depends on a Web page that's been rewritten for the small screen in Wireless Markup Language (WML).

Pocket Internet Explorer for the Pocket PC is Microsoft's answer. It provides access to full Web-page content because it can reformat pages for better, more appropriate display on the Pocket PC's 320-by-240-pixel color screen.

Some analysts say the Microsoft approach will win out because it doesn't require converting HTML pages to another format for a limited audience of wireless users. But others say there will be so many wireless users that next-generation Web pages will be designed for both wired and wireless downloads; thus, converting from wired to wireless won't be a problem. In the short term, analysts say, all three approaches will be used.

Iain Gillott, an analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC) in Austin, Texas, favors the WAP approach, which he says could be used with the Pocket PC and thus doesn't necessarily compete with it. WAP is likely to spread because more than 300 companies are behind it, while Palm and its licensees are the chief backers of Web clipping, he says. As for the Pocket PC, Gillott says he's not sure why anyone would want all the PC capabilities on a handheld with such a small screen: "If I want that, I'll use the wireless modem on my PC. I have a hard time believing that a non-WAP-compliant browser will be successful."

Gillott acknowledges that WAP today faces the problem of Web-page conversion - it can be used only if Web sites convert their HTML into WML for WAP access.

But he says that's just a short-term problem: By the end of 2002, there may be more people with wireless Internet access than are accessing the Internet through a desktop PC. "Suddenly, the webmaster designing a new Web site sees that he or she has two kinds of users - wireless and desktop - and needs to cater to them both from Day 1,'' Gillott says.

WAP faces other criticisms, but Gillott predicts they'll disappear. "People are hung up on WAP today. They say its user interface and security aren't very good. But this is Version 1.1, which I'd equate to Netscape 1.0. I think WAP will evolve very quickly, that versions 4, 5 and 6 won't look like Version 1,'' Gillott says.

Is More Better?

Jill House, a senior analyst at IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts, says she likes Microsoft's approach. The Palm and WAP approaches require too much Web site programming, she says, and won't reach big-enough audiences. Most wireless Palm applications require that Web sites be rewritten to fit a Palm Query Application (PQA), which handles data requests. "People with Web sites to run have enough to do without creating a PQA for a limited audience,'' she says.

"The gating factor is volume. If you can show people who run Web sites that there will be a significant volume of activity, they will develop for it.''Web clipping will probably disappear, while WAP may yet become part of the eventual wireless download solution, House says. Microsoft's approach of shrinking Web pages to fit portable-device screens will deliver a usable view for some types of Web pages and not for others, she says.

Jane Zweig, executive vice president at Herschel Shosteck Associates Ltd., a Wheaton, Maryland., consulting firm, says that as wireless speeds increase, neither WAP nor Web clipping will appeal to users. Wireless downloads of 2M-bps are possible, but it may take years.

"I'm not saying people will do all the browsing on a phone that they do on a PC with a landline today. But ultimately, the limited content available will diminish the value proposition'' of WAP and Web clipping, Zweig says.

The trouble with the debate over wireless download techniques is that none has a track record of either cost or demand, Zweig says.

Alexander is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. Contact him at sorion99@yahoo.com.

DEFINITIONS

Web clipping is a technique for reducing the amount of data downloaded to a wireless-equipped Palm handheld computer with its 160-by-160-pixel screen. A proxy server fields queries from the Palm, gets data from Web sites and then sends a compressed response (typically 500 bytes or less) to the handheld unit.

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) is a standard aimed at delivering condensed Web information to specially equipped wireless telephones. Because these phones have even smaller displays than the Palm devices, WAP downloads are likely to be smaller than Web clipping responses.

Pocket Internet Explorer, a part of Microsoft's Pocket PC software, is a browser that reformats pages on the fly to fit the smaller screen.

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