Software turns handhelds into servers

Forthcoming software from start-up Zeosoft Corp. is designed to create a new role for handheld computers: the job of server.

The vendor is readying a set of Java components that load onto a handheld computer and, for the first time, turn the device into an application server. By supporting a range of communications protocols, over either 802.11b wireless or Cellular Digital Packet Data networks, these components, dubbed ZeoSphere, let handheld users connect directly with each other, and then update databases and use applications on the other devices.

If it works, ZeoSphere could pave the way for an entirely new use of wireless handhelds. With one handheld able to serve applications to another, companies could create distributed handheld applications that could interact with each other independently of connections to servers on the enterprise backbone.

Zeosoft CTO Michael Huestis cited possible uses like device-to-device instant messaging and file sharing, point-of-sale transactions, and healthcare management. Many of these applications, involving a series of interactions, would be coordinated by Zeosoft’s companion rules engine, ZeoFusion.

In the future, as Sun and Microsoft deliver the elements needed to build so-called Web services, ZeoSphere, with its support for the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) could let a handheld act as a Web services host.

Currently, nearly all handhelds function either as clients accessing applications and data on servers, or as self-contained computers with some local applications. Getting handhelds to work with each other, in a kind of ad-hoc network, is usually limited to using a built-in infrared link to transfer files.

By contrast, Zeosoft’s engineers have crafted a set of programs for handhelds that are usually found only on servers. ZeoSphere includes a compact Java application server, which can run Java Beans, a set of class libraries to handle database access, SOAP connections or links to ZeoFusion. Other parts of ZeoSphere are: one of a trio of third-party handheld object request brokers based on the Common Object Request Broker Architecture specification and a range of Java components, including a Java virtual machine based on the Java keyboard-video-mouse specification for small devices.

Java or Visual Basic applications and database programs on the device can then make use of the services from the Application Server and the object request broker to respond to requests and updates from programs running on other handhelds, without having to go through a server.

Initially, ZeoSphere will run on Windows CE, Pocket PC 2002 and Symbian operating systems. Once the software is deployed, customers can write Java or Visual Basic programs to make use of the services.

ZeoSphere can be distributed via a Web download – users click on a link, and the software moves to the handheld via a wireless connection or through a desktop cradle. Once downloaded, ZeoSphere installs itself on the device. An administration program running on wireless laptop computers lets network managers turn the functions on or off on each device and change authorizations, according to Huestis.

A companion server program, ZeoFusion, coordinates interactions among various handhelds and, as needed, with server-based programs.

Zeosoft, founded just seven months ago, is testing the software with several device manufacturers whom Huestis declined to name. They are considering bundling ZeoSphere with their hardware, he says.

The software will be available later this year. Pricing is still being finalized but will be based on a per-user, runtime licensing model.

Zeosoft can be reached at