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, PhoneOnLine.com 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.
CIO Bob Luminati, Landstar System Inc.
To make applications work on today’s screens, developers have to find a way to strip away all graphics and make sure that any graphics containing actual content are translated properly and are readable to users. In addition, developers must ensure that any Java scripts or enhancements to pages are translatable and usable.
“Because of the way the wireless device has to operate today, I can’t present a large database table and let somebody pick and choose,” Landstar’s Luminati says. “It becomes a series of process of elimination questions. After about eight questions, you can imagine how many options you have described. So we have to embed a huge number of decisions into the application.”
To address the problem, Luminati contracted with PhoneOnLine, which spent time with the company’s internal IT staff and its truckers to understand how people would be interacting with the data. By doing the legwork up front, Luminati says, it was easier for PhoneOnLine to ensure that the proper business logic was presented effectively.
Facing today’s limitations
Gary Norcross, managing director for the community bank market segment at Alltel Information Services Inc.
Another major limitation is bandwidth. Developers must make sure the information they are sending to the unit is stripped in size to accommodate the device’s 9.6kbps bandwidth, which isn’t always that simple to achieve.
Bandwidth is one of the issues holding Alltel back from delivering even more functionality to its customer banks. Until bandwidth limitations are resolved, WAP phones will never be the primary delivery channel for the banking industry, Norcross says.
But once those bandwidth issues are resolved, “you could send entire bank statements over the device,” he says. “Once we no longer have bandwidth limitations, the bank could automatically notify you that you are overdrawn and allow you to immediately transfer funds from another account to avoid the overdraft charge.”
Along with bandwidth issues are concerns about how the data is actually being transferred from wireless device to WAP server to Web server. For the process to work smoothly, local telecommunications companies must cooperate–a situation still being resolved by some telcos in the United States.
Telecommunications carriers are sure to get in the act as WAP services become more widespread in this country. For the highest service level to be achieved, telecommunications carriers will have to be able to direct the WAP services, explains Raul Romo, portfolio marketing manager for the Baystack Wireless technology at Nortel Networks in Santa Clara, Calif. “When a user wants to look up a stock quote on a wireless phone, the telco service at the head end will have to know where to send that request,” he says.
Today, cellular carriers–not local telecommunications companies–across all regions of the U.S. have some form of digital cellular service. As it stands now, as long as a user has digital cellular service and an Internet-enabled device that has been activated by the cellular carrier, users shouldn’t have too much trouble using the devices. In essence, the cellular provider is simply being used as a pipeline–the method Landstar System is using.
Other companies are choosing to turn to a wireless application service provider (ASP), which is a solutions provider that translates an organization’s wired Web information or back-end database information into a form that can be read on a WAP-enabled device. Some of the wireless ASPs crowding the marketplace today include Aether Systems Inc., AvantGo Inc., and Everypath Inc.
Finding the right apps
Perhaps more than anything else, identifying applications that can run in a wireless Web environment is a major challenge. Because the industry is fairly new and the requirements are stringent, few packaged applications are available today, with the exception of e-mail packages. Although vendors are beginning to develop applications for specific vertical markets, such as the medical, biotechnology, transportation, and manufacturing arenas, other industries must either wait for vendors to write applications or develop their own.
“We’re just at the beginning, so at this point, most of the applications are written by systems integrators,” notes Monica Hamilton, director of Nokia’s global strategic partnership program in Irving, Texas. But as the technology evolves, Hamilton predicts that more packaged applications for the wireless Web will be available.
Although developing your own applications certainly presents a challenge, there are plenty of tools available to help with the task. Using the software developer’s kit available from the WAP Forum, for example, developers with a working knowledge of the World Wide Web could probably write at least a rudimentary application. “There are a lot of tools available to generate Web pages today, and we will see the same thing happening with WAP,” Hamilton predicts.
But for more complicated development involving enterprise data critical to decision-making and retrieving data at the back end, even Hamilton admits that turning to outside help is probably the answer. In fact, because of the numerous challenges companies face when trying to rearchitect their applications for the wireless Web, many have chosen to outsource the application development and ongoing management, or at least partner with vendors that can provide significant assistance to their own internal IT staffs.
Along with a lack of expertise in wireless application development, an organization’s internal IT staff isn’t likely to be available 24×7 to assist traveling employees or customers. Once issues of cost–both actual cost and the cost of adding additional IT staff–are considered, many companies opt for outsourcing.
The other handheld wireless Web device
For the next 18 months or so, Internet-enabled telephones will be the most popular way to provide wireless access to the Web, Aberdeen’s Quinn predicts. But over time, PDAs such as Palm Inc.’s PalmPilot, running the PalmOS, and Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Jornada and Casio’s Casiopeia, both running Microsoft’s PocketPC, also will increase in popularity as delivery mechanisms for wireless Web applications.
Delivering the same applications on a PDA platform that are available on a wireless telephone platform is the next frontier for both Landstar System and Alltel Information Services. The goal for both of these companies is to make services available on whatever platform their users prefer. “It’s all about flexibility and user preference,” Alltel’s Norcross says. “All of this technology is so new that you just can’t afford to place your bet on just one device type.” Although offering banking services on PDAs will require some additional work because the screens are different, Norcross says it’s worth the extra effort.
The trend toward making Web accessibility available on both platforms is already in full force, with most vendors touting wireless Web applications addressing both platforms. ThatWeb.com’s recently launched Uni.WapMail, an e-mail retrieval solution for wireless devices, works with both WAP-enabled phones and PDAs. The same is true for Gentia Software’s recently announced Wireless Scorecard, which allows executives to track strategic developments within their companies while on the go.
There may even come a point, experts say, when the device of choice will be a hybrid of both technologies–something akin to Nokia’s 9110 device available in Europe today, but with more capabilities. In fact, both Neopoint Inc. and Handspring Inc. currently have hybrid devices on the market, as does the team of Qualcomm Inc. and Kyocera Corp., which makes the pdQ smart phone.
During the next few years, Quinn predicts that other vendors will produce similar hybrid devices. The feedback these vendors receive will help hone the look and functionality of these devices, leading to improved form factors and user interfaces.
But these devices won’t completely replace the current crop of PDAs and WAP-enabled phones. Instead, they will simply add another choice. The most likely candidates to use these hybrid devices, Quinn believes, are those who currently use both a digital cellular phone and a PDA on a daily basis. //
Karen D. Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology. She is based in the Washington, D.C. area and can be reached at [email protected].
The next wireless frontier
For many, WAP (wireless application protocol) is synonymous with the wireless Web. But that’s not entirely true. For one thing, the WAP protocol, which functions as a browser for a cellular telephone, only works with phones specifically enabled for the protocol. Other tools that can access the Web wirelessly, such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and notebook computers, have no need for the WAP protocol at all–at least today. The WAP Forum, a group of about 300 technology companies, envisions WAP as a standard that will provide Internet and advanced telephony services to pagers, PDAs, and other wireless terminals, as well as to digital phones.
Using a WAP-enabled handset from a company like LM Ericsson, Motorola Inc., or Nokia Corp. is similar to having Internet Explorer or Netscape Communicator accessible through your telephone. The WAP protocol receives information from the Internet or an intranet and translates the data into a format users can understand by interfacing with a WAP server manufactured by companies such as Nokia and Infinite Technologies Inc. The WAP server connects to Web servers containing the content and applications being accessed.
WAP-enabled telephones allow users access to a variety of global wireless services, including the ability to transfer funds and stocks, make flight reservations, and check the weather, news, and sports scores. Today, the data users receive through WAP-enabled phones is only text-based.
The one factor holding back full-fledged use of WAP is its spotty availability in the United States, due to some ambiguity in the marketplace about whether WAP is truly the future of wireless Internet access. An unexpected shortage of WAP-enabled devices also is a factor. But as more WAP-enabled handsets become available in configurations that are more Internet-friendly and technology advances to allow for even greater speeds, these limitations should all but disappear, experts say. In fact, International Data Corp. (IDC) of Framingham, Mass., predicts that beginning in January 2001, all digital telephones shipped by manufacturers will be WAP-enabled.
In addition to full-scale availability in the United States, some industry analysts and would-be users are still concerned about the protocol’s security, despite claims from companies like Nokia that the authentication and encryption mechanisms are rock solid. “There is still a disconnect between when you are transmitting over the Internet and digital cellular, and when you actually hit the WAP server. It’s still not entirely secure from end to end,” says Kelly Quinn, senior analyst for carrier enterprise communications at Aberdeen Group of Boston.
But once those security issues are put to rest in the next year or two–and they will be, if the powerful WAP Forum has anything to say about it–WAP will find a permanent place in the wireless world.
Says Quinn, “WAP is a fact of life at this point, whether in its current incarnation or in a future one.” –K.D.S.