Wired The Wireless Way
by Christoffer Andersson
The Mobile Internet is showing its presence around us as we speak. WAP, Palm.net, I-Mode are examples of working solutions and systems that are here today. Itís a very interesting space that is emerging, where the Internet/software world meets the telecom/datacom world. With new systems emerging, like GPRS and WCDMA, the datacom and telecom parts are indistinguishably integrated and the systems will not be worth a lot without the presence of software and applications.
In my job I find myself talking to the network (tele-/datacom) people about applications and to the software industry about different means of connectivity. This column will be very much focused on the latter, describing how wireless access changes the arena for developers used to the Internet and LANís. It is true that the future networks and surrounding technologies will bring seamless IP connectivity that enables applications to connect to services anytime, anywhere and with any device, but it is still crucial to know about the new challenges and possibilities.
Letís start with the new challenges. When developing applications that are to use a wireless connection, some caution is required. Packet loss, high and varying latency and low signal quality are things you donít experience to a high degree in fixed networks. These properties might give you problems if you are not aware of them (I hope to go into more details about these issues at a later stage).
When looking at these things, and evolving packet data systems (GPRS, CDMA 2000 1X) with bitrates (in reality) comparable to the modems many of us use at home, itís easy to get discouraged and start dreaming about 3G and promises of low latency and bitrates in megabit ranges. The Mobile Internet is here today, with WAP, Palm.net and I-Mode and I will not even start with the business advantages of being early in this space but rather just focus on the technology. The new devices will have so many features that are close to utopia for the fixed Internet: Mobility, positioning, personalization, integrated voice and data and the main feature: Being ĎAlways Connected, Always Onlineí!
So, what is meant by that slogan, and why is it so important? The property refers to the connectivity that some of us are already experiencing with our computer at work or at the University: You never have to dial in to get to the Internet. At home you (those of you who donít have DSL or a T1Ö) struggle with tedious dial-up sequences, and then get billed for all the time you are connected, even if you spend 90% of the time reading web pages. Being always online means that the Internet (and other services) is just one click away. Checking the weather will be just as easy as looking up a phone number in your phonebook. No dial-up sequence and you will (most likely, depending on the operator) not pay for the time you are connected, but rather in some way corresponding to the actual usage ($/bytes or even flat rate).
How will that affect the applications, you might ask? Well, it changes everything, and the changes start at the end of 2000. After that transition, almost all mobile phones will be packet data enabled and application developers can start to take that kind of connectivity for granted. Still donít see the revolution? Well, how many pure Internet applications can you name that I can go to a store and buy? Not that many, right? They are mostly PC applications with some connectivity features. One of the reasons is that a majority of the Internet users today are only casually connected, i.e. using modems where you only connect to the Internet when you have some specific mission. So, I believe that the transition into pure packet data is going to be much quicker for the Mobile Internet, and application developers will quickly realize the possibilities of leveraging that. Imagine writing an application where you know that the user is always online! Then, finally we can have things in our hands that do things for us; not just searching for the information we command them to directly.
Letís say that I want to take a (well-deserved!) vacation, but I want to save some bucks by getting a last minute trip (Cancun would be nice). I can then select the preferences of my desired trip on my PC or my handset (PDA, phone or other), and have them monitored by the application in my handset (or possibly on a server that talks to the handset). As Iím always online, I will get instant notification when something comes up, and I can then choose to pay for it with my electronic wallet or my handset. The point here is that I can keep myself mobile, which after all is the natural state as opposed of being tied to a desktop computer, and I can be in control without constant interaction. Sure I could have polled the travel agency, the Web, or some other information source, but the added freedom comes from the connectivity in combination with smart software that leverages it. At this point we will finally have technology that makes things easier and more convenient for us.
I will describe some other features of the wireless systems of today and tomorrow in upcoming articles. The first one will focus on GPRS, General Packet Radio Services, that is a packet data overlay system for existing cellular networks. The main feature of GPRS is the ĎAlways connected, Always onlineí property that is the prime enabler in the example above. Editor's note: Christoffer's GPRS article will be online in mid-April.
Donít hesitate to drop me a line with suggestions and comments (responses may be slow sometimes, though, due to the huge amount of incoming mails). If you are in the process of developing wireless applications, make sure to sign up as a member at http://www.gprsworld.com (membership is free and open to anyone, not just the ones currently developing for GPRS). You can also drop in at one of the Ericsson GAA test labs for tests in a wireless environment and feedback on how to optimize for wireless.
About the author: Christoffer Andersson is Head of Technology for the Ericsson GPRS Applications Alliance, working in the Silicon Valley lab. In this position he and his global team helps application developers test their applications in wireless environments and to understand wireless networks and the Mobile Internet. His column will focus on wireless technologies and their impact on application development. Christoffer can be reached at email@example.com.