3GSM - Businesses need smarter mobile infrastructure

Consumers want to waste time with their mobile phones, while businesses want to save time. So said Rene Bonvanie, vice-president of Oracle 9i marketing at Oracle, in a keynote speech at the 3GSM World Congress, a meeting of mobile network operators and vendors.

Bonvanie's simple observation has implications for the way operators build their networks, implications addressed by Bonvanie and other keynote speakers on the opening day of the conference. While consumers might be content to play games on their phones, business users are looking for tools that speed their access to important data.

For Don Listwin, chief executive officer of mobile software platform developer Openwave Systems Inc., the move to packet-based data services is "all about putting intelligence in the network."

However, intelligent new applications must coexist with dumb old ones, according to Rodney Atkins, general manager of pervasive computing at IBM Corp. "Nothing is ever thrown away in this industry," he said. "Things must integrate going forward."

Gordon Saussy, CEO of mobile services software developer Megisto Systems Inc., sees a need for a new layer of software infrastructure between the network and the providers of Web services, a layer which will determine who can access what and how much they must pay -- in real time.

Last to speak, Juha Christensen, vice president of Microsoft Corp.'s mobile devices division, sees (inevitably) a future in which an increasing number of mobile phones run Microsoft's Windows Powered Smartphone software. "Bringing out a phone with an operator is a lot more than just network testing, though, it's about bringing together all these services," he said.

One way businesses are using mobile networks to save time is by linking devices that were not previously connected, IBM's Atkins said.

"We're starting to see a proliferation of new user devices: by 2005, it's estimated there will be 10 billion programmable pervasive computing devices," he said.

Linking those up could be a large opportunity for mobile network operators, but connecting so many devices will result in a hugely complex system.

"As complexity increases, if we don't embrace an open systems approach, there's a risk of fragmentation," Atkins said.

For Atkins, the open system to embrace is Java. "The service delivery environment should be consistent end to end, from the devices through middleware to the back end. We see this as a Java-based environment," he said.

Oracle's Bonvanie is more wary of standards. "We don't think we are at the point where we can declare any standard the winning one, or say any standard will still be there in five years," he said.

Accessing e-mail and files while on the road can be a real test of users' intelligence but, faced with a choice between making users smarter, or infrastructure more sophisticated, "It's the infrastructure that needs to be smarter," he said.

Although unwilling to say which standards will last, he still sees the need for them. "Delivery is universal, you shouldn't have to develop a different service for PDAs, for phones, for laptops and for voicemail," he said.

Application development platforms should take care of all that for software developers, so that operators don't have to build different services for different channels. "Every application needs to be a mobile application," Bonvanie said.

The biggest asset mobile operators have is their relationship with their customers, as providers of identity services, according to Megisto's Saussy. Network operators own the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) that authenticates GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones to the network. Operators can use this as a way to deliver personalized or tailored services to their customers in a way that no other service provider can.

One way in which business users hope to save time with their mobile phones is by gaining access to the increased bandwidth offered by 3G (third generation) services. Such services are still not a commercial reality in Europe, while WLAN (wireless LAN) services based on the 802.11b standard are spreading rapidly -- a fact that, curiously, is an advantage, not a threat, to mobile phone operators, Saussy said.

"There's a massive footprint (of WLAN services) being built here, by corporations, by private users, by the hospitality industry. That's a great benefit to mobile service providers operating 2.5G and 3G networks, because seamless roaming is something that only those who provision identity can lever," Saussy said in his keynote presentation.

Microsoft seems to be working in the opposite direction: it has already introduced WLAN products to the consumer market, and is now busy promoting its software for smart phones. What distinguishes a smart phone from an ordinary phone is its support for sophisticated services such as e-mail, Web browsing, and electronic commerce. Such services can increase average revenue per subscriber by 15 percent, according to Christensen, so beware if you buy one: the price tag is not all you'll be paying.

In addition to developing the Windows Powered Smartphone client software for mobile devices, Microsoft has introduced Mobile2Market, a way for independent software vendors to sell their applications through platforms provided by network operators. Microsoft verifies each application to be sold to ensure network reliability, and then attributes it a unique serial number so that sales can be identified and tracked.

The company also offers a mobile application catalog server which allows companies like Handango Inc. to build virtual storefronts, Christensen said. French network operator Orange SA will be the first operator to build Mobile2Market, he said.

In a video clip presented by Christensen, Orange Vice President of Product Development Infrastructure Nick Balderson said Mobile2Market "is a great way for application developers to showcase their work."

Orange introduced the SPV, the first smart phone based on Microsoft's software, last year. Other smart phones will soon follow, said Christensen, with 33 manufacturers making them or announcing their intention to do so. Last week, Smart Communications Inc. in the Philippines became the second operator to announce a Windows Powered Smartphone.

Germany's T-Mobile International AG will follow later this year with a pan-European launch "with a brand-new device and extremely good services," Christensen said. "With T-Mobile we are also announcing some work around Pocket MSN to extend the service to these devices," he said.

The 3GSM World Congress runs through Friday at the Palais des Congrès in Cannes, France.

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