Technology

Wireless: A confusing Landscape

New Orleans was very much in the news this week, and not just because of Mardi Gras. In a level of excitement reminiscent of that felt in the early days of the Internet World trade shows, the CTIA Wireless 2000 conference opened its doors.

AOL started moving further on its AOL Anywhere Strategy by announcing partnerships to deliver its Instant Messenger services on the Bell South and Sprint PCS network and to equip Neopoint, Nokia, and Motorola devices with the necessary software to do this too.

Microsoft announced partnerships with Nextel and Airtouch to deliver MSN to their networks. This follows recent announcements by Microsoft that its technology would be integrated in Sony and Quallcom wireless devices.

Meanwhile, Palm Computing announced a deal with Sun Microsystems to make Sun’s iPlanet service available to Palm VII users.

But with all the hype, one has to wonder whether wireless is truly here and what hurdles it has to overcome. From this issue on, I will take a quick look at some of the issues facing wireless web implementors these days, adding wireless as a new category of coverage. We will start with the formats.

WAP, WML, HDML, PQA???

It seems the wireless space in adept at developing a new set of standards. While this world is just burgeoning, a number of implementations have already surfaced.

WAP

: As defined by the WAP Forum, WAP is the Wireless Application Protocol. Think of it essentially as HTTP for the wireless crowd. Backed by the W3C, the IETF, and the ECMA, as well as most large wireless industry players, WAP has become the de facto standard for wireless delivery. However, some companies (NTT comes to mind) have tried presenting alternatives to WAP and have so far been relatively unsuccessful. However, I doubt that WAP will go very far as it limits the number of characters that can be sent to about 1600. For stock quotes or weather reports, it’s a great think but beyond that, I doubt that anyone will use it for Ecommerce or content.

WML

: WML stands for Wireless Markup Language and is an XML based subset of HTML. However, a war as broken out in that space, with phone.com (one of the early pioneers in the wireless space) striking out on its own and developing a competing standard called HDML.

HDML

: HDML, or Handheld Markup Device Language, phone.com proposal for a new markup language. At the current time, the W3C has worked with phone.com and other markup language partners in an attempt to resolve the incompatibilities between the two offerings. With the cachet of WML increasing over the past year, phone.com has started supporting both format but offers HDML has a language with new tags that allow it to extend WML applications. Because it was an early player in the field, phone.com has taken a lead and could be the Microsoft or Netscape of that space. As a result, the extensions they are providing can’t be ignored.

HTML 4.0 mobile

: Last year, with the introduction of HTML 4.0, the W3C made some recommendations in terms of supporting HTML for wireless devices. Throwing further confusing in the wireless space, the W3C decided that HTML 4.0 and its successors might be the way to go, throwing more oil on the wireless fire. While no recommendation has been made yet on an actual standard and in spite of the W3C’s claim that it is working to resolve disputes with the W3C, expect some serious in-fighting between the different groups as they try to position themselves in the next hot web application space.

PQA (Palm Web Clippings)

: A couple of years ago, I pointed out that the Palm OS could be a potential Java competitor in the non-PC devices space. As could be expected, Palm went out and introduced the Palm VII, a wireless device with connections to the web. What was surprising, however, is that instead of going out and supporting either WML, HDML, or even HTML, they decided to introduce their own format to distribute web content: PQA or the Palm Query Application language. PQA is a paired-down HTML version that allows you to distribute content on the wireless Palm platform. Since services like OmniSky plan to offer wireless access to Palm devices other than the Palm VII, and since Palm already has an established footprint in the PDA space, expect PQA applications to pop up left and right.

A lot of format but what do I implement for?

At the current time, it seems there are no clear winners in the space however it seems clear that WAP has a strong lead in the delivery space for small bits of data. But WAP will not be the way to do Ecommerce or content as a clear character limitation makes it fairly useless for this. On the markup front, I’d strongly recommend looking at WML as it has received support from some of the larger players (Microsoft and Sun, among others) and seems to be the basic level of functionality. However, you should also look very seriously at the PQA format because of Palm’s extremely large footprint in the PDA space.

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