What Is A Wireless Application?

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By Miro Stoichev

The Mobile Internet is hot. Smoking! I have the privilege of seeing it evolve both in Europe (led by Sweden and Finland) and in the US. We see both these markets striving towards fulfilling the urge for mobility. The US dominates (in my opinion, at least) the software industry, with tons of very talented and driven software engineers. Wireless in the US is a different story, however. The usage of cell phones is picking up, but it is still far behind the European counterpart. In Stockholm you see every other teenager using hands-free (talking to themselves, looking at the horizon) and typing SMS (text) messages on the phone, faster than you do it on your PC! When they want to find a friend at a club, they use SMS, as it is impossible to hear regular voice-calls (“meet me downstairs”). Today these two worlds are bringing the best from each camp into the Mobile Internet, and I think we will see winners from both sides (not to mention the enormous synergies of cooperation). One of the hottest areas is the wireless application, but what is that really?

I’d like to divide the wireless applications into two main categories: client-server and client resident applications

WAP is the first example of client-server applications

Today most of the applications that we see are WAP applications or using similar technologies (web clipping, I-Mode). That is good, because the success of upcoming wireless applications will be very much driven by WAP. Most of these applications that we see today are browser-like menus that you navigate through, with the content on a remote server. As we move into the future of the Mobile Internet we will see WAP evolve into an advanced environment, supporting things like multimedia and streaming, enabling richer experiences. The other main access technology is the regular http/html web access. This is foreseen to continue to be important, due to the vast number of sites available, but probably mostly for bigger devices, like laptops. WAP and ultra-light clients are very appealing as they don’t require any skills from the user. You don’t have to download, install or configure each application. The updates are done at the central server, and therefore instant to the user. For those reasons, WAP is expected to be the mass market access medium, where all major phone vendors will have it in all their phones. The market for the Mobile Internet, by the way, is expected to be around 600 Million users in 2004!

What about client resident applications then?

Today we are seeing more than just web browsing as applications for the Internet. You can have a stock trading application that is constantly online, giving you a level of interactivity that is beyond what you get with browsing (yes, advanced scripting could possibly come close to that, but I don’t think it’s efficient). Streaming video and online gaming are other applications that are more than just navigation through hyperlinks. My vision is that the second wave of wireless applications, that starts with GPRS (1xRTT for the IS-95 CDMA track), will be the wireless version of this. This change happens at the end of 2000, when you are going to be Always Online, but probably only paying for it when you use it. One of the reasons why these kinds of applications are not widespread on the Internet today is that online access is not taken for granted. Most people are still stuck with dial-up connections, which makes that market for pure Internet applications limited. I think that this shows why the impact of GPRS as a connective technology is likely to be huge, you will have the Mobile Internet always at hand. It will be as easy to check the weather as it is today to look up a phone number. You can now put applications into the actual device (device resident applications), enabling that program to do things for you, even when you are not actively using the device. An agent looks around the web for the best/cheapest alternative if you want to purchase an item, is just an example. This is a major step into making things lots simpler, even though the services will be better. Maybe this will lead to a situation wherein wireless applications will mature faster that Internet applications. Why? Wireless data will for the majority be always online, and always online means that applications that are assuming connectivity will have a market. The major change will then be that the devices with their applications can do things for you, and you won’t have to pull all the information you want.

Of course, most of the applications which people use on their home PC, they will want to use when they are on the move as well. We now see a massive mobilization among the key players in this area (developers of today’s PC applications), as they are making the preparations needed to meet a new network and a new market. I often get the feeling that US companies have a hard time understanding the impact of the phone-centric part of the Mobile Internet, with WAP. They only talk about yet another way to connect their favorite laptop to the Internet. Big mistake… In the same fashion, I see many European companies only seeing WAP as the way go. I’m certain that PDA’s, Gameboys,and other devices we have yet to see will play a substantial role in this. If you want powerful applications that do things for you, device resident applications are definitely to be looked at.

Internet applications

The strange thing now seems to be why nobody is talking about Internet applications (not counting web access, of course!), but lots of people are talking about wireless applications. It’s probably because we view our PC’s as home computers primarily, and Internet devices secondly. For applications written for EPOC, for instance, the developer is likely to view his device as a Mobile Internet device primarily, and a handheld computer secondly. Palm and Win CE might be a bit different, though, as they already have an established number of users that do not take for granted that the device is connected (yes, EPOC as well but I believe it to be more phone-centric). For all of these platforms we can see many ways of developing impressive applications, especially when we add factors like personalization and positioning.

That’s why I think the Mobile Internet will drive the fixed Internet in the future.

Don’t hesitate to drop me a line with suggestions and comments (responses may be slow sometimes, though, due to the huge amount of incoming mails). You can drop in at one of the Ericsson GAA test labs for tests in a wireless environment and feedback on how to optimize for wireless.

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