Rewiring the world for handhelds

With wireless Web devices expected to outnumber wired devices in a year or two, some forward-thinking companies are ready for the future now.
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Wireless words: a glossary
WAE (wireless application environment):
includes all elements of the WAP architecture related to application specification and execution

WAP (wireless application protocol):
the application protocol that allows a WAP-enabled mobile phone to connect to the Internet

WML (wireless markup language):
Similar to HTML, it's a language used to create pages that can be displayed in a WAP browser

WSP (wireless session protocol):
provides the application layer of WAP with a consistent interface for two session services. The first is a connection-oriented service that operates above the transaction layer protocol WTP. The second is a connectionless service that operates above a secure or nonsecure datagram service (WDP).

WTA (wireless telephony application):
allows incoming and outgoing calls to be handled within WML and WMLScript, permitting trusted parties such as network operators to deploy combined voice call and Internet services in an easily programmable way, in conjunction with a network WTA server

WTAI (wireless telephony application interface):
specifies how WAP applications can access mobile phone functionality

WTLS (wireless transport layer security):
implements options for authentication and encryption and is optimized for use in the mobile environment

WTP (wireless transaction protocol):
provides an efficient request- or reply-based transport mechanism suitable for devices with limited resources over networks with low to medium bandwidth

Forget about the image of a lone trucker speeding down the highways and biways of rural America at night with just a citizen's band radio linking him to the outside world. Soon that will be nothing more than 20th century folklore, like the lonely trail-riding cowboys of the Old West. Many of today's truckers aren't isolated in their vehicles, waiting to get to the next truckstop to check in with headquarters via land-line telephones. They are already riding the wave of the Internet's future, the wireless Web.

Today, about 8,000 independent truckers and other employees working for Landstar System Inc., a Jacksonville, Fla., transportation logistics company, rely on Internet-enabled cellular telephones to perform a host of services and queries wirelessly while on the road. In conjunction with its integrator, Inc., in Knoxville, Tenn., Landstar has built a wireless system that allows truckers to interface with the company intranet and the Internet. By using any Internet-enabled cell phone on the market today, truckers can notify headquarters when the latest load is picked up, how it is secured, and what route the truck is taking. They also can check Landstar's intranet to determine what their next assignment might be.

For truckers, "the cab is their business office," says Landstar CIO Bob Luminati, making wireless Web connectivity especially advantageous to drivers on the go. Landstar's associates have been accessing much of the same information via the company's intranet on traditional PCs for about four years. The ability to adapt that Web content to the form factor of a wireless data device, though, is a major advance, not only for the truckers themselves but for Landstar, too, which considers it a competitive advantage in its industry.

The changing face of wireless

Keeping up to date with developments in wireless Web technology is more difficult than it may appear to be at the outset. The definition and scope of wireless Web access changes each year, as technologies mature, more applications are developed, and access methods improve. A year ago, it meant accessing the Internet and e-mail via notebook computer. Today, it means Internet-enabled telephones and Web-ready PDAs. Tomorrow, it may mean an all-in-one device featuring the best of wireless telephones, PDAs, and pagers.

Today, largely as a result of an improved regulatory environment, growing consumer awareness, and better equipped handheld devices, mobile Internet access--either through Internet-enabled telephones or wireless PDAs--is becoming more popular in the United States and abroad. By the end of 2002, in fact, more people will gain access to the Web through wireless devices than through PCs, according to International Data Corp. (IDC), an analyst firm in Framingham, Mass.

Ahead of the curve

To make the Landstar content accessible on wireless devices, PhoneOnLine wrote an application using wireless markup language (WML) and other Internet software development tools with the Nokia wireless application protocol (WAP) Server as a gateway between the wireless-enabled application and the company's traditional Web server environment.

In many ways, Landstar's system is a good prototype for what many companies should be doing today, experts say. The firm's executives know what they want, and they have taken the time to learn as much as possible about the technology and its challenges and capabilities. They are flexible enough to work toward making the technology available on whatever platform their users prefer--starting with cell phones and moving eventually to personal digital assistants (PDAs)--and they are taking their development needs to an integrator specializing in wireless Web applications. Moreover, they aren't waiting around. Landstar executives are determined to be ahead of the curve, and to change with the times.

Like other organizations making the move to the wireless Web, Landstar chose to start with Internet-enabled cellular telephones. And for the next year or so, these phones, which increasingly will adopt the WAP standard, will be the centerpiece of companies' wireless Web strategies, analysts believe. In fact, more than one million people subscribed to the wireless Web via cellular telephone last year, and IDC estimates that the number will grow to 112 million by 2004.

Gearing up for the challenge

But along with those benefits come challenges. It's not an insignificant process, Tainio says, to convert pages designed for the World Wide Web to those that can fit on a cellular phone with four lines of text and no graphics. Changing MeritaNordbanken's system over, which involved rearchitecting the applications to support both HTML and WML, took about two months.

In fact, the limitations of the screen on today's Internet-enabled cellular phones is one of the biggest hurdles for many companies to overcome, says Kelly Quinn, senior analyst for carrier enterprise communications at Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based consultancy. The screens are so limited that most can only display four lines of text. "For e-mail and simple applications, that's adequate, but if you want to display information with graphics, a larger screen would definitely be better," she says.

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