Short Analysis: Wireless Data Access

Market Status

Much utility could be gained from allowing all types of information and services to be accessible via wireless devices;  the same type of information that is accessible via the web, for example: corporate data, banking, stocks, flight info, e-mail, news, calendar, maps/directions, instant messaging, multiplayer games, etc.

When talking about Wireless Devices, we’re really talking about a wide range of tools:  cell-phones (Nokia, Motorola, etc.), PDA’s (Palm, WinCE, Psion, etc.), and Pagers.

Cell-Phones

Currently, cell-phones have very limited data bandwidth, practical only for text-based communication.  Richer multimedia is waiting on the heels of “3G,” the third-generation high-speed network.  The majority of cell-phone innovation is taking place in Europe, where a very high percentage of most populations have one.

The two most prominent platforms for data communication on cell-pones are SMS (simple message service) and WAP (wireless application protocol).  SMS allows for only very rudimentary communication; it only allows for short text messages to be sent from one SMS device to another.  WAP, however, is a complete operating environment for wireless applications.  Ideally, a person could browse the web on their cell-phone with a standard HTML-based browser.  However, because of the fact that a cell-phone’s user interface (the very small screen, the limited data input capabilities, etc.) is so drastically different from a desktop PC, WAP emerged.

WAP relies on WML (Wireless Markup Language) which is an implementation of the XML standardized specifically for use on wireless devices.  WML is very similar to HTML, as they are both markup languages, however they have slight differences to accommodate for the cell-phone’s limited interface:   WML uses a “Card Metaphor,” where user interactions and navigations are split into “cards” (think “page”).  A collection of cards are called a “deck” (think “site”).  WML also makes use of WMLScript,  a scripting language derived from JavaScript.  WAP also includes an API for telephony operations (make calls, etc.) and utilizes standard formats for Business Cards, Calendar, Images, etc.

More information regarding the WAP standard can be found at: http://www1.wapforum.org/member/developers/slides/wap-application-environment/sld001.htm (details of WML comes in at about slide # 11)

PDA’s

This market consists of two different types of machines: PC Accessories (extension of the PC; like Palm, Visor, etc.) and Handheld PC’s (roughly PC-equivalent, like most Windows CE machines; Cassiopia, Velo, Psion, etc.).

Wireless communications for these PDA’s include the Palm VII with its built in modem and data service, and various wireless modems for the Palm III, Palm V, and WinCE devices.

Pagers

One-way communication on paging devices has been around for quite some time, however, new paging devices are allowing two way information.

Problems

Here are a list of just some problems with these wireless data devices (of which successful companies will solve):

Privacy – Privacy becomes an increasingly bigger problem as, via these products, people and data will become more and more accessible.  Time management becomes even a bigger issue than it has previously been, as people will struggle balancing work and home life.  Some people claim ubiquitous access will allow them to work more efficiently, therefore creating more free time.  Others feel that it will allow work to encumber upon home life, driving up work expectations to get things done quickly.

Software Usability – like HTML, user interaction with these devices are not in real-time, and are therefore very poor.  Also, data input with these devices are very poor, and are limited to using tiny keyboards, on-screen keyboards, numeric keypads, and special pen-based languages.  Voice input and “Predictive Text Input” (where a dictionary tries to guess and complete the word a person is keying-in) are steps in solving the problem.  Many feel that voice-input naturally lends itself to wireless devices, voice being the inherent unbound communication tool for humans.

Software Portability – HTML introduced a very simple way to distribute applications, where a client device (a PC) simply “accesses” and uses software located on the server.  These wireless devices are following the same trend, however, the differences in these client devices (Phone, PDA, wristwatch) are far more extreme.  Tools that allow developers to easily port software efforts from one platform to another platform are essential.

Data Portability – Before having access to the network, most wireless devices “synchronized” with software in order to maintain data integrity.  This was due to the fact that there were two or more software packages (usually from different vendors with dissimilar interfaces) each with its own way of storing its data.  As applications become more “portable” (as described above) the need for multiple software packages with multiple data stores will decrease.  Data will be stored on one server and will be “accessed” by a myriad of different devices.  (See “Server Side Data and Networked Clients”).

Interesting  Companies

Phone.com (formerly Unwired Planet, www.phone.com)

Providers of software and services that allow for internet applications to be available via cell-phones.  They currently have the most mature WAP browser available.  Recently acquired @Motion, a company bringing voice-recognition technology to cell-phones.

GoAmerica (www.goamerica.com)

Provider of web and e-mail access via RIM850 Pager (www.rim.net).  GoAmerica’s web browser is pure-text, and shows a web page without images.  Service is highly regarded among small group of users.  GoAmerica allows for unlimited free use while using their software and charges $0.20 per packet when using other software.

TrueSync.com (www.truesync.com)

Site created by Starfish Software that allows data to be inputted on one device and synchronizes that data with all other devices/services a person uses.  TrueSync is compatible with Motorola clipOn, REX, REX Pro, Palm, Windows CE, Outlook, SideKick, Act.  With a single mouse click, calendars, contacts, notes, and tasks are all synchronized among all devices and services, and data is even accessible on TrueSync’s web site.

AvantGo (www.avantgo.com)

Very popular tool for viewing web-based information on wireless devices.  AvantGo outputs data in Palm VII, Windows CE, and WAP format.  Has an AvantGo Enterprise product for making corporate data and applications available remotely.

* SqueezeNet (www.squeezenet.com)

Creating wireless web applications that can be accessible via any wireless device.  Partnering with a company called Syvax to create a real-time travel, lodging, and reservations system for wireless devices that is currently patent pending (www.handres.com).

* “Page Info” Service (www.hz.com)

Service created by one person that allows you to request useful information via a two-way pager or SMS phone.  Information includes flight info, weather, stocks, etc.  Service uses a simple, command driven language; commands such as “FLIGHT,” “WWEATHER,” and “STOCK” are entered into the device (along with the parameter(s) for the command) and the information is quickly sent back to you.

WebCab (www.webcab.de)

Non-profit organization trying to advance technology in wireless communications.  Allows a person to access POP3 e-mail account via WAP capable device.

ProxiNet (www.proxinet.com)

Creators web browser for Palm OS, named ProxiWeb.  Company’s goal is to allow internet information to be accessible on any device using any network.  The group that created this software is the same group that created Inktomi.  Browser uses ProxiWare; an intermediary piece of software that “retrieves HTML content from other Web servers, transforms the content, and delivers the reformatted content specifically to handheld devices for rendering by the ProxiWeb client.”  This software does not require any effort from individual web sites in order for their site to be accessible via ProxiWeb client.

SmartCode Software (www.smartcodesoft.com)

Creators of web browser for PalmPilot and Palm III called “HandWeb” (however, not as sophistacared as ProxiWeb).  Also developed E-Mail and Faxing tools for Palm OS.

* ZTango (www.ztango.com)

Creators of platform for allowing data to be accessed via WAP compliant devices.

* Room33 (www.room33.com)

Service accessible via web-site or WAP compliant device that allows for messaging (ICQ, SMS, FAX), Calendar, and Contacts.  Also, site has a “Directory” which essentially is a portal to other WAP applications. (NOTE:  This is the only tool I have heard of that allows Instant Messaging to be conducted via WAP!  Also, it is apparent in USENET newsgroups that there is great demand for a Yahoo-like directory of all WAP services that are available.)

Pixo (www.pixo.com)

VC-backed applications developer for wireless phones.  Created a web browser that natively access HTML.

AU-System (www.ausystem.com)

Large Swedish software and consulting company specializing in communications via both voice and data.  AU-System is highly revered among industry-types, and is a powerhouse regarding WAP.  They developed a WAP browser for the Palm V.

Orange (www.orange.co.uk)

Large UK mobile phone company.  Creating a very interesting WindowsCE-based VideoPhone which will be available next year.

Web Browser as an OS; SAP client as a web “site”?

The navigation of a web browser (URL line, back, forward, hyperlinks, bookmarks, etc.) allows a user to access a particular web page on a particular logical “site.” This navigation is built-in to the web browser and, for the most part, cannot be changed; it is constant.

Every site employs its own means of navigating within the site. For example, many sites list “site categories” on the left side, such as “Products,” “Support,” etc. This means of navigation varies from site to site; it is dynamic.

Looking at a web browser and a “site” in this respect, is a web browser not unlike an Operating System? Is a “site” not unlike an application?

Windows 95 is an operating system. It provides the environment in which Windows-based apps “live.” A web browser provides the environment in which Web-based apps live.

Now, there are huge differences between the environment that Windows 95 provides, and the environment that a web-browser provides. Windows 95 allows for much richer human-computer interaction. Applications written for a Windows 95 environment can respond to user actions in (from the user’s perspective) real time. Web-based applications inherently require the user to “submit” information, which is processed by a server, which is then responded to by the server. Windows-based apps can display a “grid” on the screen that can be sorted by clicking on a particular column. Web-based applications require a page to be completely re-loaded every time a list of items is sorted. Windows-based apps can support dragging & dropping of information… . etc. etc..

Over time, it seems that the Web browsers are, however, becoming a more interactive environment. Client-side JavaScript, client-side VB-script, and Java applets are testament to this fact. If this trend continues then Web Browsers will provide an environment increasingly similar to the environment that Windows 95 provides. Dragging and dropping, “live” interaction, etc. will be made possible.

This raises a bunch of questions:

  • How will this more-interactive environment be made possible? Will HTML embrace all kinds of “smarter” controls, like “Grids,” and become a GUI development environment, like Visual Basic?
  • Will technologies like JAVA beat-out HTML because of their inherent interactive-ness? (while still providing the web’s server-centric advantages).
  • More and more applications are being developed for the web. Once standard client/server Windows-based apps are being made accessible by a web browser. Is a web browser’s navigation paradigm (back, forward, hyperlink’s, etc.) suitable for these apps? (for example, let’s say an accounting package). Wasn’t the Web Browser’s navigation paradigm designed for navigating through hypertext (just text and links)?

Server Side Data and Networked Clients

Data on the server side is the future.

Ideally, the user would have a complete data environment that is accessible by various means by various devices.

Imagine that you could log in from any Internet capable appliance and access your data. Work with your programs.

Why, for example, do you need to lug around your Compact Discs from your home to your car and back?  When you purchase music, it should be stored digitally on some server somewhere so that your car stereo, your walkman, your computer, and your home stereo system could easily access it.

All commonly used devices that revolve around the use or storage of data will rely on the network for data storage and retrieval. This includes walkmans (music), cell phones (phone book), cordless phones (phone book), computers (documents, spreadsheets, and other application data), TV’s (as vcr-replacements for movies).

Imagine the potential growth in revenue for the movie rental business:

First of all, why do you need a Blockbuster store in order to find a good movie to rent?  All you do at the store is read the movie titles, look at the pictures on the box, and read the summary. So…get rid of the store. Replace it with a smart, searchable, interactive online catalog with movie previews, etc.

Second of all, why do you need to manufacture video tapes?  The movie can be distributed to you blockbuster account via the network.  Get rid of the distribution costs.  No more video tapes.  No more trying to calculate the popularity of a movie in order to produce and distribute the “right number” of tapes.  If 800,000 people want Jurassic Park, they will get it.  If 1 person wants a small, no-namer B-Film, they will get it.  Blockbuster could perfectly supply the demand of its customers!  How incredibly efficient; analog companies that build and distribute physical devices (Sony, HP, Honda, Kenmore) can only dream of achieving this!

Applications will be on the server side, but in what form?

The benefits of an application being on the server side are distribution and maintenance. Installations and updates would not have to be done on a company’s 2000 workstations. The applications would just be accessed by each workstation. Also, the application provider could log and analyze all user activity with the application. This could result in huge improvements in the design (and therefore, the usability) of applications (Yeah!).

Technologies such as JAVA were developed to achieve this goal.

Approaches to outsourcing access to applications like Microsoft Office via a web-browser are very mickey-moused. Applications such as Office were developed to run on the desktop. They were developed to run on some flavor of Windows. These implementations of Windows-apps gone Server Side will be very inefficient and extremely not user friendly. Office running in a Web Browser!? Give me a break!? Tell me, for example, what does the BACK button (on the browser) do?

Some “Browser” (meaning a tool that allows certain programs to run) needs to be developed without any “standard navigation” (like BACK, FORWARD, HyperLink, etc). It should only allow maintenance of its environment- like moving screens around, etc.

Of course, this sounds very familiar (MS Windows!).

Idea: Platform For Online Marketplaces

A platform for online marketplaces could be huge given all of the hype regarding “Reverse-Auction” style transactions.

The platform would allow buyers to specify items they are looking for, and sellers would place bids/quotes on these items.

The buyers would choose the seller that offers the best prices, guarantees, shipping, etc.

Like Moai Technologies Auction platform, this tool would be the transaction enabler for Online Marketplaces.

When the seller replies to an item, the tool would be smart enough to ask the seller the most important information regarding the item (for example, a television: screen size, PIP, remote control, etc.).

When viewing the bid, the buyer would see all of the most important features, as well as the asking price for the exact items from the top sellers in the market (for example, curcuit city, best buy, etc.). This would justify the value of the offer.

The tool would create a profile for sellers, including ratings and past-buyer comments.

It would be used to develop the now super-hyped reverse-auction style marketplaces; everything from:

  • Labor Brokering
  • Consumer-goods
  • Any business where there are multiple suppliers of similar goods/services (especially of commodity items)

Although there will ultimately only be a few successful reverse-auctioning sites for each market (historical examples for Auctioning model include: Ebay, ubid, Yahoo Auctions, etc), this tool has high short-term value as an easy way for different players to jump into the market quickly.

It’s the equivalent of the “tool supplier” during the “Gold Rush” analogy, where the majority of the Goldminers made very little money, while the “tool supplier” did very well.

Idea: Mobile Telephone Style Marketing for Photography

Mobile telephone network companies (Sprint PCS, Pac Bell, LA Cellular) charge little or nothing for their hi-tech phones so long as their customers sign a lengthy contract (1 year +) for their phone network.

Film Developing providers, such as chain stores like WAL-MART, K-MART, RITE-AID, etc could charge little or nothing for appealing film cameras so long as their customers sign a lengthy contract for film developing with them.

Getting cameras in the hands of users can increase the potential that they take pictures, and the providers could increase revenue in film developing just like cellular telephone providers have increased revenue with more network use (more calls made). This also greatly increases the “walk-in” sporadic business of the chain store, as both dropping the film off and picking up the photos are a store visit (which is probably why most stores offer the service to begin with).

The problem with the idea is that the film developing providers have no way of enforcing that users develop their film only at their stores. However, the same problem exists with the Free/Cheap PC idea, in that the end users don’t have to use the set-up ISP or start page portal.

The film development providers can enforce a certain number as the “minimum allowable film development” per year.

This idea assumes that photo-processing is something that chain stores anticipate existing for years to come. However, new digital means may allow end-users to “process” photos on their own. Ideally, no processing would be required in order to capture photos.