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Going Wireless - Five Points to Guide You…
Going Wireless - Five Points to Guide You…

If you're planning a wireless initiative, but are confused by the alphabet soup of acronyms such as WML, PQA, RIM, EPOC, CDMA, GPRS, and countless others, this article will help clear things up with a discussion of five key points to understand now, as well as what to look for in the future.

Launching a project to provide wireless access of mission-critical applications or data to mobile users can be challenging. Often there's a myriad of requirements, technical considerations, integration issues, field-testing trials, deployment challenges, and cost issues to address. One of the most challenging aspects of developing information systems that employ wireless solutions is dealing with technology that's still in its infancy. Therefore, there are five key points that should be clearly defined before moving forward with any wireless initiative:

  1. Customer requirements of the mobile device platform based on the type of mobile application(s) to be deployed
  2. The wireless coverage area of service required by the customer
  3. Future upgrade paths when newer wireless technologies become available
  4. The mobile application type and associated implementation languages, APIs, and development tools for building wireless applications in an enterprise environment
  5. Middleware integration solutions that arise from introducing a mobile front-end or wireless channel
This article will touch on each point above, all of which should be considered carefully during the planning stages. I'll also list a number of different wireless product offerings that are currently available to help build enterprise wireless solutions.

1. Mobile Device Platform
Mobile device platform categories include smart phones, two-way pagers, handheld devices, pocket PC computers, and Windows-based notebook computers, many of which now come in a variety of super-mini form factors.

Each mobile device platform offers a unique user interface display and input control. Palm OS-based devices, for example, offer a stylus touch screen for navigation and data entry, while non-Palm-style smart cell phones typically sport some combination of numeric keypad controls along with cursor control keys. Two-way paging devices from Motorola and RIM offer mini-alphanumeric keypads. Portable standard keyboards are available as an accessory option for most pocket PC PDAs.

The decision as to which mobile device platform to use can be a heavily charged issue for an organization looking to implement a wireless access solution into the enterprise. Therefore avoid the bias for a particular mobile platform guide during the decision-making process. Instead, focus the discussion on the requirements of the business applications that will be deployed on the mobile platform, and the type of control and data-entry functions required of the user interface.

Be sure to consider all the possibilities. For example, the application to be accessed over the device may require the voice and interactive key controls from the user simultaneously. In this case, a Palm OS-based smart phone with a handsfree set might be the best option. Finally, consider the cost per unit of the mobile device and multiply that by the estimated number of units that will be deployed to the field to gain an idea of how much the initial costs of field deployment will be and whether it falls within the planned budget. Understanding the type of business applications that will be accessed over (or deployed on) the mobile platform and the requirements of the user interface is critical. However, it will most likely not be the sole criteria for platform selection. Wireless coverage area will also be a significant factor.

2. Coverage Area
Part of the initial analysis during the planning stages of a wireless project is to clearly define the geographic area that the mobile user base intends to operate in. This can be as simple as the small office or campus area, or as challenging as requiring wireless coverage spanning multiple continents. Once the geographic area of wireless service has been defined, the next item to determine is the wireless data bandwidth needed by the business applications that will be accessed or deployed on the mobile device in the field. To do this you must identify what the bandwidth requirements will be when the application is first deployed, and what the future demands of the application might be as it evolves.

Avoid getting caught up in the alphabet soup of wireless air interfaces (CDMA2000 1X, PDC-D, UMTS, GPRR, EDGE, Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11b, etc.) at this part of the analysis stage. Instead, focus on the coverage area that will need to be serviced, the wireless data rate required, the types of wireless services being offered (SMS, WAP 2.0, i-mode, etc.), and whether the various costs of the service will remain within the specified budget. Once coverage area, required packet data rate, service options, and associated costs have been specified, the choice of air interfaces (and hence wireless carriers if coverage is beyond an office or campus area) will narrow quickly, making the decision process easier.

Keep in mind that everything in the world of wireless is subject to change. Therefore, it becomes advantageous to lay out a few upgrade paths in the analysis stage that make up an overall migration strategy from the existing mobile device-air interface solution to be adopted toward the newer 2.5G and 3G wireless technologies as they become available in coverage areas of interest.

3. Upgrade Path
Wireless service carriers such as AT&T Wireless, Nextel, NTT DoCoMo, and Sprint PCS all have clearly defined plans for upgrading to 2.5G and 3G wireless network air interfaces. Regardless of who your current or planned wireless network carrier is, it will be important to understand what their upgrade path from 2G circuit-switched networks to 2.5G-hybrid circuit/packet and 3G packet wireless networks is. For example, AT&T Wireless, which currently operates the largest wireless data-packet network in North America using CDPD technology, has announced plans to deploy a network infrastructure based on GSM/GPRS technology. This differs from Sprint PCS, which is planning on rolling out CDMA2000 1X technology, and NTT DoCoMo, which has committed to deploying 3G wireless network technology in Japan based on the UMTS air interface with its FOMA services rollout.

The upgrade path that a particular carrier selects will determine both the types of services that will be available [including extended messaging capabilities, high-speed packet data, video-streaming, location-based services (LBS) and voice-over-IP (VoIP)] and in what time frame. The stakes for carriers such as Vodafone, Sprint PCS, AT&T Wireless, and many others are extremely high as they race to plan and deploy the next generation of wireless networks through a series of upgrade paths.

Table 2 is a sampling of wireless service providers, their current network technologies, and future upgrades. Keep in mind that although a particular carrier may have announced plans to upgrade to a particular 2.5G or 3G wireless technology by a given date, these plans may have been delayed due either to the challenge in obtaining the frequency spectrum (which has often been the case for 3G deployment in North America) or the tight financial constraints that nearly all carriers are operating under, given the extended downturn in the telecom sector, or both. If a particular carrier has committed to launching a 2.5G or 3G technology in a time frame that's agreeable with your project plans, be sure to learn which markets (metropolitan or other regional areas) will be the first to have the faster wireless technologies installed.

The bottom line is: it's vital to understand exactly what current or potential wireless carriers' existing technologies are, as well as their plans to upgrade to 2.5G or 3G networks, and whether their time lines for upgrade mesh with the deployment plans of your wireless business application (see Table 4 for information on CDMA2000 deployments). The demands that the wireless business application places on the wireless network interface (e.g., effective data rate) will be determined by the type of mobile application. This topic will be examined next.

4. Type of Mobile Application Technology
There are essentially five technology types for mobile wireless applications:

  1. Interactive voice-based
  2. Short message delivery
  3. Wireless Web
  4. Lightweight database
  5. Thin client/server
Each application type will have a different software system architecture associated with it, and will generally come with a unique set of implementation programming languages, APIs, and development tools. Keep in mind that the application type chosen and implementation strategy adopted will, to a large extent, determine the choice of the mobile device platform.

Interactive Voice-Based Applications
These types of telephony applications use VoiceXML technology to enable voice-based access to Web site content to construct voice portals. Information and interactive content is contained in a set of XML documents linked together to form a voice navigable-menu content hierarchy, with voice grammars defining valid recognized voice speech input. The user interacts with a site using a voice browser to control navigation and access auditable content that's produced using a voice-synthesis engine. This solution is especially appealing if access from all possible phone types is a business requirement, as this solution supports landline telephones, voice-only mobile phones, as well as the newest breed of wireless smart phones. Products that support VoiceXML technology include Covigo, iConverse, Lutris Enhydra, Motorola Vox Gateway, Verascape, and the Everypath Mobile Application Platform. URLs to each company's product Web site appear in Table 5.

Wireless Messaging Applications
This wireless application category is the most mature area in the world of wireless, thanks in large part to technologies such as ARDIS, FLEX, ReFLEX, Mobitex, SMS, and many other proven wireless data and messaging technologies. Numerous real-world business applications have been deployed in the field utilizing these wireless communication protocols, which predominantly operate over data- or paging-based networks in North America, or GSM circuit-switched voice networks widely installed throughout Europe and Asia.

One of the best indications of a mature and established wireless cellular technology is coverage area availability in metropolitan and suburban areas, as well as in areas close to interstate highways. When this is considered, paging technologies such as ReFLEX, used by SkyTel, and SMS, used by GSM operators such as Vodafone, score very high. On the enterprise application side, a number of software companies offer mobile enterprise products that support wireless message-based paging protocols like SMS. Table 6 lists various messaging products including the Microsoft Mobile Information Server, Covigo, Lutris Enhydra, MobileShift, SMS Gateway from EI Group, and SMPP Developer's Toolkit from Logic A.

Wireless Web Applications
Mobile applications that fall into this category utilize a markup language geared toward mobile devices for content delivery and navigation control, whether it's cHTML (i-mode), HDML, WML, XHTML-Basic, or Palm Web Clippings. Mobile enterprise technology solutions such as IBM's WebSphere Transcoding Publisher, Oracle's Oracle9i Application Server, and CoolJava's HTML transcoding services are all geared toward taking existing content and applying site-defined translation rules in the transformation process to generate a variety of wireless markup in language formats such as WML, cHTML, HDML, MML, and XHTML-Basic on the fly. Keep in mind that this so-called Web-to-wireless strategy, which involves taking existing HTML content and dynamically transforming it to a form that can be viewed on a wireless device, can also be implemented using low-level technologies such as XSLT, JSP, and Java servlets. However, the developer effort in many cases will be significant, making an off-the-shelf product more appealing.

Whether your initial strategy involves creating a new wireless channel for existing content, or creating a new wireless Web site from the ground up using WML and WMLScript, for example, the choice of tools (see Table 7) is more diverse than you probably expected. All of these integrated development environments (IDEs) listed are available for Windows and generally include a visual editor, compiler, debugger, and mobile device simulator.

Lightweight Database Applications
The availability of enterprise database access over a remote wireless connection is another challenge to developing sound mobile enterprise architecture. Solutions to accessing enterprise-wide databases from a mobile client include using small-footprint DBMS technologies such as IBM's DB2 Everywhere software or Sybase's iAnywhere technology. Both software DBMS packages allow mobile applications to insert, modify, or delete information stored in a small-footprint DBMS using a CLI implementation such as embedded SQL, or a JDBC or ODBC interface. Any changes are then synchronized with the master database when enterprise network access over a wireless connection becomes available. These mobile database technologies are key to integrating a wireless solution into enterprise database farms, thus allowing road-warriors to access corporate information resources remotely, over a wireless connection, without dialing in or having to find a coaxial or TP connection.

Thin Client/Server Wireless Applications
This mobile technology involves developing thin client-side applications to communicate with an external application server. Communication techniques include using raw TCP or UDP datagram transports, or, in some instances an HTTP session, to transfer data to and from an application server. The J2ME, Palm, and Windows CE programming models all support TCP and UDP as well as higher-level HTTP sessions over TCP/IP. If the particular mobile device platform supports HTTP or SMTP, this opens the door to possibly employing application-level transport such as SOAP.

Unfortunately, many of these network technologies are designed to operate over tethered Internet connections where continuous, high-speed, reliable data links are generally assumed, and therefore have not been adapted to the specific characteristics often experienced over wireless data connections such as on-again, off-again link connections based on the distance from the local wireless base station.

The lack of application-level transports geared toward wireless connections is a reflection of a much larger void that currently exists. At this time, there are no common application programming interfaces geared toward wireless connectivity that have been developed, standardized, and adopted across major platforms such as EPOC, J2ME, Palm, RIM, and Windows CE. As a result, software developers find themselves having to build applications for smart phones and PDAs using vendor-specific SDKs and APIs, many of which have been more closely optimized to work with the unique characteristics of a particular wireless technology type or mobile device platform.

Vendor-specific SDKs will typically support a particular carrier's air interface for which that mobile device is commonly deployed on, as will be the case with RIM's Java SDK support of GPRS when it becomes available this fall. J2ME, with platforms for Palm, RIM, and Windows CE, might be the best hope for standardization of an API for wireless network access across various mobile platforms. However, this will probably not occur until the newer 2.5G and 3G technologies have been deployed and are operating, which will pave the way for rapid growth in the field of mobile platform software technologies.

5. Enterprise Integration
The level of integration into the enterprise IS architecture will be determined by which corporate information systems and resources will be linked to a wireless front end or channel. E-mail, calendaring, employee data, expense reporting, corporate directory services, databases, and application servers are all candidates for mobile access. Which type of mobile application is used to implement wireless access, whether it's voice-based, message-based, wireless Web, thin client/server, or small-footprint RDBMS, will quickly define the enterprise application architecture required for implementation.

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing a mobile application platform is the number of data sources (HTTP or HTML, XML, database, etc.) that it supports out-of-the-box. Other critical points to consider include how much legacy information will need to be accessed by the mobile user, and what format this information is in. As noted earlier in this article, a number of vendors including Covigo, iConverse, and Mobile ID (see Table 7) have mobile application products to perform conversion of HTML-based material and make it suitable for display on wireless devices.

Features commonly found in mobile application platforms include subsystem components to generate mobile device markup such as cHTML, HDML, MML, Palm PQA, and WML; component services for WAP push; subsystem interface support to existing database systems or XML sources; interfaces to mail servers such as Microsoft Exchange Server or Lotus Domino Server; HTML translation services to repurpose existing content for display on mobile devices; VoiceXML browsing and voice-synthesis services; wireless messaging support such as SMS; and in some cases, Java 2 Mobile Edition (J2ME) application provisioning. Other features in a mobile application platform that can prove to be important include tools for mobile software distribution and mobile device network management functions, such as those found in the 4thpass Mobile Application System (MAS).

The type of enterprise information sources that are going to be made available to the mobile user, the type of mobile applications that will be distributed to the mobile user base, and the selection of mobile system platforms and associated wireless technologies are all key factors to consider when attempting to formulate a wireless solution that will work within an existing enterprise. However, there are many others that are beyond the scope of this article including security (LDAP, SSL, WTLS, etc.), administrating the wireless channel/access, and field trial testing, just to name a few.

Planning and then deploying a solution to provide wireless access of mission-critical applications or data to mobile users is challenging. The process of researching and developing an architecture that will fit into an existing enterprise can be made easier if the project plan is guided initially by the following:

  • The mobile device platform and the business applications to be deployed on or accessed over the device
  • The coverage area required by the user base - office, campus, national, international
  • The upgrade path of possible carriers to GPRS, CDMA2000, or UMTS if a local wireless technology is not to be used
  • The mobile application technology type - voice, messaging, wireless Web, thin client/server, or small footprint DBMS
  • Integration into the enterprise - data sources, legacy content, mobile application platform features
Other factors to consider include implementing security over wireless connections and field-testing of mobile applications. Both topics will be discussed in a follow-up article to appear in a subsequent issue.
About Kevin Wittmer
Kevin Wittmer works for SmartSignal Corporation as a technical lead. His programming interests span .NET, Java, C++, and Perl.

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