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The GSM Association M-Services Initiative
The GSM Association M-Services Initiative

Throughout last year the single most talked about technology was WAP. This exciting new set of standards promised to free us from our desks by enabling us to access content on the Internet through our mobile phones wherever we were and whenever we wanted. The subsequent failure to deliver on this promise to the consumer with any degree of success has been well documented over the past year as, accompanied by what seemed at times to be a complete meltdown in the global telecoms economy, WAP suffered a series of often well-justified attacks and became simply and succinctly known as "crap."

This was unfortunate as WAP actually held - and indeed still does hold - a lot of promise. The problem with early WAP-capable handsets was that they were very consumer unfriendly. Unfriendly to use, unfriendly to look at, and a completely different experience between handsets. Users tended to use their handset's WAP feature once, if at all, before forgetting about it altogether.

The GSM Association, a group whose members include most of the world's GSM operators (see sidebar), realized that something had to be done...fast. Working with their members, they set about developing a series of guidelines that would give WAP a much friendlier consumer face.

WAP failed to excite mass consumer interest for a variety of reasons. These ranged from overenthusiastic hyping by advertisers, to high expectations from users, to dismal "knee-jerk" content offerings from content providers eager to steal the lead in the first-to-market race. Coupled with unintuitive menus, lackluster graphics, slow download speeds, and expensive bills, the reasons for the subsequent backlash, in hindsight, are now painfully apparent.

Lessons Learned from DoCoMo
However, in Japan a quite different phenomenon was underway. NTT DoCoMo's i-mode service was a runaway success. Despite slow download speeds, connectivity, and scalability issues, they were signing up subscribers at a furious rate. The Japanese youths loved the color displays, melodic tones, and online Web-based content; i-mode quickly became part of the average Japanese teenager's life. There are currently over 26-million subscribers to i-mode and, with the 3G services that were set for consumer launch in October 2001 offering even more interactive and engaging services, this membership base looks set to go from strength to strength.

Looking to revitalize interest in WAP, the GSM Association asked Openwave to come up with a system that would allow GSM operators to provide engaging, fun content to their subscribers. A crucial part of this was to set about developing handsets that would conform to the same set of guidelines, thus ensuring a similar experience cross-network regardless of the handset - something that does not happen easily at present. The Mobile Services initiative (M-Services) was launched on June 13, 2001, and received universal support from GSM carriers and handset manufacturers alike.

M-Services Complement WAP
The M-Services initiative published a series of guidelines that seek to address the current limitations of WAP. This is achieved by tackling the problem from several different directions at once. On the network side, new server technologies allow interactive pervasive content to be managed and charged for. On the handset side of the equation, there are guidelines for how the content should be displayed and how user interactions should be handled. For developers, the emphasis is on making the changeover as painless as possible by minimizing the amount of extra information that must be learned.

Although the guidelines and indeed the latest WAP specification provide for multiple language use, it's likely that developers will use WML (the language the WAP handsets understand) for some time to come. Luca Passani, tools development manager for Openwave (EMEA) believes WML will still be around for some time to come. WML is "the only language that has the necessary constructs to provide a decent user experience on a mobile phone," he says. (See Passani's article elsewhere in this issue.) With the still evolving specification, this lead is likely to be maintained.

First and foremost, the guidelines are not a standard designed to replace WAP. When originally announced to the world, the guidelines were indeed misread by many as a replacement for the ailing WAP standard. It was thought that the GSMA had reached the end of their patience and had designed a new standard to take over from WAP. The guidelines were in fact developed to coexist with the current WAP 1.2 standard and furthermore to be future aware for WAP 2.0. However, where WAP will work over GSM, handsets conforming to the guidelines will be explicitly required to support GPRS.

M-Services Uses Open-Source Guidelines
To ensure as wide an adoption of the guidelines as possible, they were developed as open-source hardware and software guidelines. Crucially, where WAP was always vague concerning the user experience, the guidelines seek to provide a consistent cross-handset user experience.

The M-Services guidelines are thus composed of three distinct areas: Graphical User Interface Let's face it. WAP as presented in current handsets is a pretty uninspiring beast - tiny monochrome images and text and nothing else. From a creative perspective, designing compelling content for such a basic display is a monumental effort. The guidelines lay out details for a graphical user interface (GUI) that offers the following graphics support:

  • Wireless Bitmap (WBMP): Unlike GIF or JPEG, WBMP does not compress data and only stores two facts about any image - its size and a pixel block where each pixel is defined as black or white.
  • Bitmap (BMP): These range from black and white to full color.
  • Graphics Interchange Format (GIF): The bastion of Web pages everywhere.
  • Portable Network Graphics (PNG): A replacement for GIF, PNGs were designed specifically for the Web.
  • Animated GIF (AGIF): Yes, you will doubtless be able to bring all those "cute" Web animations to your mobile device.
It's unlikely that microbrowsers - especially the early ones - will manage to support all of the above graphic formats. However, by this time next year, many if not all of the above formats should be in common use.

The above qualities have been taken from the Openwave Graphical Browser 5.0, which is the first implementation of the guidelines. (Openwave may have helped the GSMA to draw up the guidelines, but is keen to point out their open and nonproprietary nature.) If the spirit of the guidelines is followed though, then this should be a fairly solid indication of how other devices containing M-Services-friendly non-Openwave microbrowsers will appear.

The GUI also contains elements such as pop-up menus, radio buttons, check boxes, push buttons, and horizontal rules to make formatting complicated content as simple as possible.

Downloadable Fun
One of the first interactive products of the M-Services initiative has been Openwave's Download Fun. As the name implies, this allows entertainment-oriented content to be downloaded and stored on a subscriber's handset. These can include old messaging stalwarts, such as ringtones and logos, and can also be extended to other services such as graphical wallpapers. One of the key parts of this service is that it has been designed to enable integration with the network operator's billing system, allowing seamless charging of content. Long the mainstay and major success component of i-mode services, Download Fun will allow content to be charged for in a number of ways (the first two would result in a single entry appearing on the subscriber's bill):

  • Services can be offered on a fixed-price basis.
  • Content can be offered on a subscription basis, either weekly or monthly. NTT DoCoMo's i-mode has a wildly popular service that allows wallpapers in the form of cartoons to be downloaded on a subscription basis.
  • A per-item purchase where the prices can vary or the downloads may be a once-only occurence would appear on a subscriber's bill once for every purchase made.
Of course, a solution could involve one or all of the above methods or a variant thereof. The key part is that the initiative seeks to make charging for content easier for the service and content providers and subscriber, combined. This is perhaps one of the most essential parts of the initiative from a business point of view. A recent study of UK operators by wireless networking organization, WAPwednesday, accused operators of "cutting the oxygen supply" to wireless developers when a survey found that not all was being done that could be done to further the development of wireless services.

With 84% of respondents giving a resounding thumbs down to mobile operators' efforts to-date, the operators were accused of being part of the problem rather than the solution. The introduction of M-Services should give beleaguered operators a chance to remedy the situation.

This naturally involves the full cooperation of the carriers and it will come as somewhat of a relief that the majority of carriers worldwide have indicated their full support of the M-Services initiative. One of the more irksome problems that was encountered by developers and content providers was the near impossibility of integrating with carrier billing systems. The M-Services initiative seems to be taking an important first step toward solving this problem.

Interface Requirements
This is perhaps the most important area of the guidelines. The single factor that contributed most to WAP's lackluster reception was that the interface - how the service was presented - was frequently so difficult to come to grips with that the results gained as a result of fiddling with your WAP phone frequently didn't merit the effort employed. Worse still, the handsets contained different microbrowsers (and still do), which means the interface on a Motorola WAP phone is strikingly different from, say, a Nokia WAP phone.

This is primarily due to the WAP standard's hazy definition of what form the interface on the phone should take. When putting together the WAP standards, the WAP Forum quite reasonably envisaged that WAP microbrowsers could appear in just about any sort of wireless device, not just the familiar mobile phone. However, this left the field wide open for interpretations of how things like forms and navigation worked, leading to all sorts of confusion and eventual recrimination.

Thus the guidelines seek to specify how the display should appear and function, which simultaneously makes them far more attractive to look at, easier to come to grips with, and once you tire of one manufacturer's phone, easy to pick up and use another's.

Handsets by Christmas?
The above three areas essentially raise the lowest common denominator by a number of factors. Developers who currently author to the lowest common denominator to ensure that their applications are usable by as many WAP users as possible will take heart from the additional levels of functionality provided by the guidelines.

With so many requirements, and given WAP's tortuously slow evolution, you could be forgiven for thinking that all this is some way away. However, many operators and manufacturers have pledged support for the GSMA M-Services guidelines and it was expected that some 12 handsets would be available as early as Christmas.

Here Openwave has a clear advantage. Although the guidelines and supporting intellectual property are freely available to anyone who requires them, Openwave is nearest to market with both conforming handset microbrowsers and the necessary network servers for the interactive portions. Those who pledged to release products to market in time for Christmas may have found that they needed to use Openwave products to achieve their goal. Although Openwave does not generate revenue from use of the microbrowser, they generate revenue from sales of the carrier-grade servers to operators - a key component.

Within WAP phones it's the microbrowser that takes care of the role of displaying and formatting content. Initial versions of the microbrowsers will have only basic support, but should still be much better to look at and easier to use than their current counterparts. Phones that may have hit the shelves for Christmas will support easier entry of data into forms, possibly some color, and better handling of images. As all of the phones will work over GPRS (where available), the browsing experience should be noticeably faster than that which is currently experienced over GSM.

Those that made it out in time for Christmas (if any) are likely to contain the microbrowser developed by Openwave as that's the one that's furthest along the development curve in terms of implementation of the guidelines. A similar situation exists for those who may want to take advantage of the more advanced features that require a server-side support of the guidelines, although this is unlikely to be a pressing requirement until the second quarter of 2002, when more advanced handsets capable of exploiting this level of functionality are released.

John Hoffman, director for technology evolution for the GSM Association, is confident that device manufacturers will be quick to take to M-Services. "Companies such as Siemens, Motorola, Sagem, Samsung, and others have indicated to some of our members that they will be offering devices." He adds, however, that devices expected in time for the Christmas season "may not be as robust as i-mode devices," a reflection of the level of maturity of the Japanese service. Mike Short, VP of BT Wireless, is similarly upbeat and expects demand for new M-Services-compliant devices to be strong.

It's expected that take-up of handsets with these new features will be quite high and that other manufacturers will develop their own M-Services solutions. Due to the nonproprietary nature of the guidelines, these handsets should be much more interoperable than previous ones, though this will require a degree of cooperation between the handset manufacturers and server/gateway suppliers. At this time though, Openwave has a clear advantage and only time will tell what effect this will have on the marketplace.

However, for those involved in providing wireless Internet services over non-GSM networks, the guidelines are unlikely to offer much solace. They were developed to address issues raised by conflicting standards and are applicable to GSM networks only. Although the GSMA has over 500 members in the U.S., the majority of users connect over the rival CDMA network.

The guidelines specify that the network must use GPRS, the high-speed GSM upgrade. Some U.S. network operators intend to deploy the rival technology CDMA2000 1x which will offer similar connectivity speeds to GPRS, but that's completely incompatible with GSM. However, not all of the U.S. is moving toward non-GSM networks as Mark Taguchi, Openwave Europe's director of M-Services points out: "With Deutsche Telekom acquiring Voicestream and Vodafone's presence in the U.S. and DoCoMo's investment in AT&T and moving to GPRS… with M-Services, it shifts the balance toward GPRS and W-CDMA."

Taguchi (please see his article elsewhere in this issue) is particularly excited about the contribution Asian handset manufacturers can make. "Manufacturers from Asia that have not had a big presence in Europe are developing M-Services handsets," he says. The testing for handsets on specific GPRS networks is taking a little longer than expected, but is understandable, since it is new for some of the Asian manufacturers."

Thus, M-Services looks set to further boost GSM as the world's most popular network.

About Richard Weeks
Richard Weeks has been a developer/consultant
in the area of new media for more than six years, and in wireless for almost three. He has worked on wireless solutions for a number of firms, and helped pioneer the development of the Cartoon Network’s WAP site in early 2000. Most recently, Richard has been involved in positioning his company, brightfluid, as a center of excellence for usability and behavioral studies in relation to the wireless Internet.

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