The worldwide use of wireless telecommunications has grown rapidly as people become increasingly dependent on email and remote access to corporate intranets and other Internet based services.
As a result, mass market wireless telephones and handheld devices that provide mobile access to such resources have become increasingly prolific, and companies ranging from industry giants such as Microsoft, IBM?s Lotus unit and Oracle to startups such as Proxinet and Avantgo are working to squeeze Internet information into these tiny devices.
This had led market research firm IDC to predict that by 2002, there will be more than 55 million handheld and notebook style information appliances in use.
And in a year when a record amount of venture capital money was poured into network start ups, no single technology drew more deals or dollars than wireless. According to a Pricewaterhouse Coopers? Venture Capital Survey, between the fourth quarter of 1997 and the fourth quarter of 1998, 85 different wireless companies received $776 million in 101 separate funding rounds.
But making wireless a reality will not be easy. Alan Reiter, a wireless analyst and editor of Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing, says: "What you're trying to do is shoehorn information designed for a relatively wide pipe into a system that's connected by something more like a straw."
But that does not stop industry giants such as Microsoft from having a go, and the firm is currently in the throes of a print advertising campaign to try and erase some alleged misconceptions about Windows CE, which it hopes will become the operating system (OS) of choice for the new wireless handheld devices.
Despite the marketing muscle of Big Green and its hardware manufacturing partners, sales of CE based appliances have so far been disappointing and Microsoft admits that it has failed to communicate the benefits of the devices.
In fact, according to IDC, Windows CE PC companion class machines actually lost market share to rival offerings during 1998, dropping to a 17.3 per cent from 17.8 per in 1997.
The market research firm also forecasts that such appliances will show anemic growth over the next few years, with handheld PC devices accounting for only 18.5 per cent of the total handheld market this year and growing to a mere 23.3 per cent by 2002.
As a result, Microsoft?s print campaign will initially be directed at clarifying the role of the PC Pro, its name for handhelds that are powered by CE and are about the size of mini notebooks.
Roger Gulrajani, Microsoft?s group product manager for Windows CE, says: "We want to provide some education on what handheld PCs are and how customers can use them. It?s a 'what the heck is a handheld PC?? campaign."
Not to be outdone, however, archrival Oracle is now using its database roots to try and bring Web access to cell phones, personal digital assistants and other handheld devices.
Denise Lahey, Oracle's vice president of mobile and embedded products, says the firm is keen to jump into the market for Internet access via wireless devices because it "is exploding like crazy. If you marry the markets together, you can triple the number of users on the Internet."
As a result, the company has developed prototype software under the guise of Project Panama, which was previewed at the Cebit show in Hanover last month. This is based on its Oracle 8I database and application server and automatically translates the HTML or XML based formats of Web content into languages that are understood by wireless devices, so making it easier to retrieve.
Lars Persson, executive vice president of Swedish telecommunications firm, Telia Mobile, says: "Telia and Oracle have developed the prototype for Project Panama, which removes all the limitations, which include recoding and manual customisation, to bringing dynamic Web content to mobile devices."
He adds: "Eliminating these technical barriers allows us to focus on service differentiation and deliver personalised Web content directly to mobile phones."
Project Panama is currently in pilot testing and is expected to ship in the second half of this year. Microsoft and Qualcomm also announced they were working on similar technology at the start of this year, although the software is limited to Windows CE devices only.
Sun Microsystems has likewise jumped on the bandwagon by signing a deal with the Symbian joint venture, which includes Psion and Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia (see VNU Newswire, 19 March, 1999) to create Internet enabled cell phones running on its Java platform.
And the usual slew of start ups are also starting to emerge to try and exploit gaps in the market.
Proxinet, for one, plans to ship its new software in mid April, which translates Web content on the fly into a format that can be understood by 3Com?s Palmpilot and Windows CE devices, and enables users to surf the Web live without needing to be connected to a PC.
All they require is a wireless modem and associated services before downloading the software for free and installing it on their appliance. Proxinet's server based software also maintains the look and feel of the original Web page while reducing the amount of bandwidth needed to send graphical images to handhelds.
Avantgo, on the other hand, enables users to browse Web content downloaded onto handhelds by a PC link by reformatting it to make it easier to view.
The AvantGo Web Client is a Web browser that resides on the handheld device, enabling customers to find and review information by tapping on hypertext links with a pen. The software stores HTML, text files, Gif and Jpeg graphics images in compressed formats to conserve memory and reduce synch time.
Jill House, an analyst at IDC, says: "This is the first product that really lets companies deploy a mobile fleet of the devices and give them direct access to corporate data."
But as such devices start to appear on the market, the inevitable flurry of standards activity also begins to take place.
Network equipment giant Cisco and cellular phone maker Motorola have said they plan to invest $1 billion over the next four or five years in developing a standard that will use Internet technology to enable wireless networks to transmit data, voice and video services.
3Com and Alcatel are also cooperating to define a standard application programming interface (API) so that packages can run on any handheld computing device, mobile phone or telecommunication terminal. 3Com's Palm Computing personal organisers will be integrated with Alcatel's One Touch range of Global Position System (GPS) mobile phones to create an integrated two part communications device.
And Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Unwired Planet have formed the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) Forum to try and provide a global standard to enable the delivery of Internet based services. In 1998, the WAP Forum published technical specifications for application and content development and product interoperability.
Despite all this activity, however, neither the funding nor the ongoing rollout of products and services from vendors will necessarily translate into useful wireless products and services for network managers.
Technology limitations, lack of customer enthusiasm for corporate wireless services, and tough competition from carriers present challenges that vendors and service providers will need to overcome if they are to succeed.
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